Friday False Friends 5: puny

Quill feather

puny (adjective) ‘feeble, weak, of small growth’

This word arrived in English during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and he is the first recorded user of several of its senses. The modern meanings can already be seen when King Richard, referring to Bolingbroke, addresses himself: ‘A puny subject strikes / At thy great glory’ (Richard II, III.ii.86) or Othello says that ‘every puny whipster gets my sword’ (Othello, V.ii.242) – a really demeaning description of the person who has disarmed him, Montano. But when in Henry IV Part 1 Prince Hal describes Francis as a ‘puny drawer’ (II.iv.29), the word means ‘untried’ or ‘inexperienced’. Objects can be puny in this sense too, as when in Henry VI Part 1 the Bastard says of Talbot’s son that he did ‘flesh his puny sword in Frenchmen’s blood’ (IV.vii.36). From the same French word is puisny ‘inferior’, heard in As You Like It when Celia talks about ‘a puisny tilter that spurs his horse but on one side breaks his staff’ (III.iv.39)

David Crystal is a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and is the co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.