You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: puissant

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun’s John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


Thanks to those damned Normans, English has any number of words imported from French. We have powerful from the Latin posse, “be able,” through the French poeir. And Old French has also given us the somewhat archaic puissant (pronounced PWIS-ahnt), which also means “powerful” or “strong.”

It should not surprise you that H.L Mencken, who delighted in mixing the obscure with the demotic, should have a fondness for the less common term. In “Where is the Graveyard of Dead Gods?” we find this sentence early on: “There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus.”

You may think this affected, or you may find it delightful. English offers you many choices. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Example: From Nicholas Lemann, “How the seventies changed America” in American Heritage, July/August 1991: “The puissant, unified, prospering America of the late 1940s seemed to be just a fading memory.”   

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