I prefer the term “compact.”

Dear Word Detective:  How do you spell a word that means “very small,” that starts with a “p,” and sounds like “puenee,” or “punie,” or “pwewnee”…? Whatever that word is, I would love to know the correct spelling and its derivation. — Sylvia.

Good question. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that this mystery word is driving you nuts. It can be very difficult to identify a word you’ve heard but never read, especially since so many English spellings are, shall we say, counter-intuitive (“Wednesday,” “Colonel” and “Island,” just for starters). A good thesaurus can help in many cases; just look up the meaning (“very small”) or similar words (“tiny”) and chances are that the culprit will be sitting there in the list of synonyms,  looking guilty.

But now, to actually answer your question, the word you’re probably thinking of is “puny,” an adjective meaning (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak; diminutive, tiny.” It’s a great word because it’s almost always used in a derogatory sense (“Your puny Earth weapons are no match for me, for I am Dwayne, Lord of the Galaxy.”). In modern usage, something “puny” is not merely small, but ridiculously inadequate (“One puny hamburger all day for a growing child?”) or inappropriately small or feeble for a given activity (“Why would you want to watch a big-screen action movie on some puny iPad?”).

“Puny” first appeared in English in the 16th century, adapted from the Old French “puisne” (a compound formed from “puis,” later, plus “né,” born) meaning “younger, born later.” (That “né,” incidentally, is the masculine form of “née,” which is sometimes used to indicate the “birth name” of married women, e.g., “Jackie Kennedy, née Bouvier”). “Puisne” itself, pronounced the same as “puny,” was used in English for several centuries, but survives today only in legal terminology.

“Puny” has undergone some interesting changes over the years. It first appeared as a noun, meaning “a recently admitted student to a school or university,” and from there took on the more general sense of “a less-experienced person; a novice.” Not surprisingly, the word also was used to mean “a subordinate; a person of no significance.”

The adjective form of “puny,” appearing in the late 16th century, originally meant simply  “junior or younger,” but soon took on its modern meaning of “inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak, etc.”, almost always served up with a heaping helping of contempt (“Some puny scribbler invidiously attempted to found upon it a charge of inconsistency.” Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). Of course, it helps that the word itself begins with a “pew” sound, long used as an expression of disgust or contempt (“Pew! what an ungratefulness and unwontness the man is grown unto!” 1941).

If there’s a kinder, gentler use of “puny” out there, it’s to be found in the southern US, where “puny” can mean simply “in poor health; sickly” (“I found your dear Aunt Catherine in a very puny state, not entirely confined, but obliged to rest herself on the bed more or less every day.” 1838).

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