hoarding of money; miserliness
This rare noun is first recorded in the column Table Talk of The Daily News (London) of Saturday 22nd December 1906:
Our Post Office spoils us. It takes a great deal of trouble for the public that it need not take, and that other Post Offices do not take. We note in a New York paper the following little history:
An oddly addressed letter reached the post office at Mamaroneck yesterday, addressed like this: “Mrs. Russell Sage, Millionaire, N.Y.” It bore a Manhattan postmark, and how it ever got through the different mail clerks to Mamaroneck is a mystery, unless the postal clerks thought the word “Millionaire” was intended for Mamaroneck. The letter was evidently from someone who wished a share of the Sage millions. It was sent to the dead letter office.
Not to Mrs. Russell Sage, who is still busy thinking how to unload the mass of money piled up by the late Mr. Sage in the course of a life of parsimonious pismirism.
The word refers to the behaviour of ants in hoarding food. It is from the obsolete pismire, an ant, composed of the noun piss, urine, and the archaic mire, of Germanic origin, meaning an ant. The word pismire alludes to the urinous smell of an anthill. Its first known user was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) in The Summoner’s Tale:
He is as angry as a pissemyre,
He is as angry as a pismire,
Though that he have al that he kan desire;
Though he have all that he can desire;
Though I hym wrye a-nyght and make hym warm,
Though I cover him at night and make him warm,
And over hym leye my leg outher myn arm,
And over him lay my leg or my arm,
He groneth lyk oure boor, lith in oure sty.
He groans like our boar, that lies in our sty.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Lord Chancellor, humanist and martyr, used the noun figuratively in A dialoge of comfort against tribulacion (published in 1553):
In the short winter day of worldly wealth & prosperitie, thys flying arrowe of the deuil, this high spirite of pride shotte out of yᵉ [= the] deuils bowe, & pearsing thorow our hearte, beareth vs vp in our affeccion aloft into yᵉ cloudes where we wene [= believe] we sit vpon yᵉ raine bowe, & ouerloke al yᵉ world vnder vs, accompting in yᵉ regard of our own glory, suche other poore soules as were peraduenture wont to be our fellowes, for sely [= strange] poore pismyres & antes.
The synonymous noun pissant is first attested in A physicall directory, or, A translation of the London dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physicians in London (1649), by the English physician and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54):
Oyl of Emmats is made of winged Emmets two ounces,* oyl eight ounces, set in the sun for fourty daies and so kept for your use.
* some countries cal them Ants. some Pismires, and some Pisants, we in Sussex Emments.