Will's word

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Puny (adjective) "weak, feeble, undersized"

Although puisne, meaning "junior" or "inferior" is known in legal English from the early Middle Ages, the spelling puny didn't appear until Shakespeare's time, when it developed two distinct senses. When Richard II refers to Bolingbroke as a "puny subject" (Richard II, III.2.82), or Othello says "Every puny whipster gets my sword" (Othello, V.ii.244), this is the modern sense: Othello means "pathetic wretch". But when the Bastard of France reminds everyone of how Young Talbot "Did flesh his puny sword in Frenchmen's blood" (Henry VI Part I, IV.vii.36) it can hardly mean "feeble", if the sword is doing such a great job. Rather it is a development of the "junior" sense - "untried, raw, inexperienced". This was the first time Young Talbot had been in battle. The two senses nicely interact when Prince Hal describes Francis the tavern-waiter as a "puny drawer" (Henry IV Part I, II.iv.29).

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers

Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today