“Piss poor” is an intensifier, meaning extremely poor, or “of very poor workmanship or ability.” The phrase is appealing at least partly because of the alliteration.
Words having to do with excretory functions are routinely used in colloquialisms meant to communicate a meaning of “little or no value.” For example: “shit for brains,” “not worth a fragrant fart,” and “I don’t give a crap.” Dictionaries call such phrases low slang, but any unpleasant associations have more or less disappeared because they are so familiar to us.
“Piss” began to be attached to other words during the 1900s to intensify their meaning. Ezra Pound invented “piss-rotten” in 1940 (distasteful or unpleasant) and we’ve since had “piss-easy” (very easy), “piss-weak” (cowardly or pathetic), “piss-elegant” (affectedly refined, pretentious), “piss-awful” (very unpleasant) and other forms. “Piss-poor” began life in a similar figurative sense for something that’s third-rate or useless.
“Piss poor” is akin to “dirt poor,” with both piss and dirt serving as figurative terms for items of little worth rather than as words meant to convey literal possession or use of urine and soil. The earliest known print sighting of “piss poor” dates only as far back as 1946, and may have been invented during the Second World War.
An article titled “Interesting History” was circulated online and claimed, “They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were ‘piss poor’.”
The piece was just a bit of mischief meant to deceive readers. However, as with similar mischievous suggestions about origins, it does contain a grain of truth. Urine has been, and still is, used in many parts of the world to prepare hides for tanning, especially to help remove the hair from hides.
The ancient Romans systematically collected urine for this purpose and even put a tax on it. The emperor Vespasian was most famous for taxing urine in the first century CE. The long-gone French public pissoirs were given the name vespasiennes as a direct link to him. Vespasian’s son was said to have objected to the disgusting origin of the tax revenues, to which, in legend, his father replied that money doesn’t smell. His comment is still used to argue that money isn’t tainted by its origins.
That comment could give rise to considerable debate.