“Full of Piss / Pith / Spit And Vinegar” Expression: Meaning, History & Usage


In the American English slang, the phrase “full of piss and vinegar” is a very interesting food-related idiom. Although it’s not that common in everyday language, it has been present in modern American English for at least a century and we are going to analyze it for you.

The phrase “full of piss and vinegar” actually means to be full of energy or vivid. Despite the superficially negative associations with the phrase, it never had any pejorative meaning whatsoever.

In this article, we are going to explain to you what the phrase exactly means, how and when it came to be, and when is it used. We are going to give you some examples of its usage and compare it to other variants and similar phrases. So, keep reading to find out more!

The Origin And Historical Usage Of The Phrase “Full Of Piss And Vinegar”

The exact origin of the phrase is unknown, but that is often the case with phrases that have been around for a long time. We cannot exactly determine when it appeared, but there is a possibility that “piss and vinegar” is actually just a corruption of the more polite phrase “vim and vigor,” which has a similar, but not completely identical meaning. We’ll talk more about these two phrases later on.

When the corruption actually happened has not yet been determined, but there is also a theory suggesting that sailors, who drank cheap vinegar-tasting alcohol and were known for their vividness, are at fault. If you add the fact that the word “vinegar” was used to describe vitality and energy during the 1920s, the story starts to become more plausible.

The first recorded use of that exact phrase was by famous American author and Nobel laureate, John Steinbeck, who used the phrase in his 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle, as follows:

“Listen, mister,” London said, “them guys is so full of piss and vinegar they’ll skin you if you show that slick suit outside.”

Steinbeck was certainly not the “father” of this phrase and it is most likely that he had heard it being used and then simply incorporated it into his works.

Similar phrases have been present in the English language for a long time. For example, in one of the famous Parnassus plays trilogy – The Return from Parnassus – we can find these words:

“They are pestilent fellowes, they speake nothing but bodkins, and pisse vinegar.”

The authors of these three plays are to date unknown and it is presumed that the above mentioned one was written around 1602. The phrase “pisse vinegar” seems to have a very pejorative meaning here, just like the similar phrase “piss and wind” (meaning “empty talk”), but these meanings have been lost on the modern connotation of the phrase “piss and vinegar”. If and how these three phrases are connected has not yet been determined.

The Meaning Of The Phrase “Full of Piss And Vinegar”

The phrase can be divided into two aspects. It can be observed in its shorter variant – “piss and vinegar” – when it is an expression denoting someone’s youthful energy, vividness, bravado and/or enthusiasm. In this context, it is actually an uncountable noun and is present only in American English and not – well, not originally at least – in other variants of the language.

The noun can also be used in the idiomatic expression “full of piss and vinegar”, where the original meaning is actually kept, but the phrase is additionally emphasized and denotes an even higher degree of the characteristics described by the original noun. In this context, the idiom is an adjective.

As stated above, this phrase – both the noun and the idiom – stems from American English and although we cannot confirm how often it’s used in other variants, it was initially unknown to them. Also, although the phrase is composed of two words which usually don’t have great connotations (piss and vinegar), it has never had any pejorative meaning whatsoever and has always been a metaphor for someone’s liveliness. But, it is considered to be vulgar, so be careful when you use it!

Usage Of The Phrase “Full Of Piss And Vinegar”

While we cannot completely determine how often this idiom appears in everyday use, we can assume that it’s not quite often because, although not pejorative, it has a vulgar context. Still, we have managed to find some examples of its usage for you to see.

We return once more to John Steinbeck, but this time to his 1938 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. This novel is Steinbeck’s most famous work and is a representative example of his literary career. In it, he uses the phrase in the following way:

Grampa walked up and slapped Tom on the chest, and his eyes grinned with affection and pride. “How are ya, Tommy?”
“O.K.,” said Tom. “How ya keepin’ yaself?”
“Full a piss an’ vinegar,” said Grampa.

From literature, we travel to television, where we found one example of the phrase being used in the globally popular show The Simpsons. This happens in the 11th episode of the 5th season of the show, which debuted on January 6, 1994 and is titled “Homer the Vigilante”.

In the episode, Grampa Abe uses the phrase when talking to Homer, although his subsequent comments twist it a bit and give it a more satirical connotation. It went like this:

“I’ll join! I’m filled with piss and vinegar. At first, I was just filled with vinegar.”

There haven’t been many other famous examples in literature or visual medias, but we have found one extra example in an interview which Metallica’s James Hatfield gave to the Rolling Stone magazine in 2008. The quote goes as follows:

“Everyone wants that: the vigor, fire, piss and vinegar. You really believe that you’re taking on the world.“

Variants Of The Phrase “Full Of Piss And Vinegar”

Some phrases have several different variants that can be found in different sources, but out phrase is not one of them. “Piss and vinegar” is most often used and it has only two known variants, both which are rarely used and cannot be considered as having equal status.

Is “Full Of Spit And Vinegar” Or “Full Of Piss And Vinegar” The Correct Way Of Saying It?

One variant is the phrase “spit and vinegar” (i.e., “full of spit and vinegar”), which actually has the same meaning but is less vulgar, albeit still informal.

It is very rarely used as a substitute for the original phrase, but it is present in the language.

What About “Full Of Pith And Vinegar?”

The second known variant is “pith and vinegar”, which is also rarely used and is created as a less vulgar variation of the original phrase, since “pith” is far less vulgar than “piss.”

Despite being less vulgar, linguists don’t suggest using this phrase as a replacement as it loses it imagery and the strength it has in the original.

Most people who use the less-vulgar variants aren’t usually even aware of the original phrase.

“Full Of Vim And Vinegar?” How Does This Compare?

A big question is – can these two phrases be used interchangeably? Well, they are synonyms, that much is true, but you should really avoid using them as substitutes for one another. There are two reasons.

Firstly, one phrase is a polite version, while the other is considered vulgar. And although you could use the former to replace the latter, it would not work that well vice versa.

Secondly, their meanings, although similar, aren’t completely the same. “Piss and vinegar” has a much stronger meaning and is actually both a vulgar and augmented version of the original phrase, which has its implications relating to the usage of the phrase.

So, unless you’re absolutely certain you can switch them, avoid doing in certain contexts and situations.

Related Questions:

Full Of Piss And Vinegar Reference In The Simpsons

While we already covered this example above, we thought it worth another mention as many viewers of the Simpsons have continued to seek out this specific reference.

One popular reference of the term “Piss and vinegar” occurred in season 5, episode 11 of the TV show Simpsons spoken by Grandpa.

I’m filled with piss and vinegar! At first, I was just filled with vinegar.

-Grampa

https://comb.io/KpiNat (you can download it from here and embed it)

Is The Original Expression For “Full Of Vim And Vinegar” Actually “Full Of Vim And Vigor?”

We’ve already said we were going to talk about this relation later on – and here we are. The phrase “vim and vigor” has been present in the English language for some time and it signifies someone who has energy and enthusiasm.

As you can see even superficially, the phrases are very similar, both in phrasing and meaning. As we’ve already said, it is quite possible that “piss and vinegar” is just an impolite corruption of the original, polite phrase.

The phrase “vim and vigor” also shows up as “vim and vinegar”, but it’s actually another corruption (or just change) that was created after some time.

In Conclusion:

To conclude, we can state that “piss and vinegar” is a very interesting food-related idiom. Signifying youthful energy, bravado or enthusiasm, it is a vulgar and informal expression used in some circles.

The origins of the phrase are not fully known, but the famous writer John Steinbeck is one of its most famous adherents. Follow us for more interesting facts and see you next time!

Sources:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/piss_and_vinegar

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/full_of_piss_and_vinegar

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/piss-and-vinegar.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spit%20and%20vinegar

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vim%20and%20vigor

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