Each week, “It’s not GREek!” will discuss a new word likely to appear on the GRE. We aim not only to give you a new word to memorize, but also to provide you with some background and etymological history to help you remember it. At the end of the post, we will also give you a sentence with a few other new words to add to your flash cards. By following this weekly series, you should be more prepared than ever to tackle the sentence completion, sentence equivalencies, and reading comprehension questions on test day.
This Week’s Word: Pusillanimous
Its origins are Latin; from pusillus–very small–and animus–spirit. For you Latin nerds, pusillus is related to the Latin word puer, which means boy. (Someone puerile is childish, acting like a young boy.)
On a more contemporary note, some folk etymology has suggested that pusillanimous originated another five-letter word for coward that starts with p which, in the interest of good taste, I will not post here.
Pusillanimous is an extraordinarily effective insult, not least of which because there’s a pretty good chance the person you’re insulting does not know what it means. It is a favorite insult of members of the literary and educated community; in the 1970s US Vice President Spiro Agnew accused his opponents of “pusillanimous pussyfooting.” Talk about an alliterative insult!
So next time you’re really looking to insult someone, don’t just call them a coward, pull out all the stops and chide them for their pusillanimity.