• peon •
Pronunciation: pee-ên, pee-ahn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A person bound in servitude to someone else. 2. An unskilled or menial laborer (pronounced [pyun] in India). 3. A peasant, a member of the hoi-polloi, an insignificant member of lower class society.
Notes: If you choose to pronounce today's word the first way illustrated in the pronunciation, [pee-ên], be careful not to confuse it with paean "hymn of praise", pronounced identically. This is a good reason to choose the second acceptable pronunciation of today's word, [pee-ahn], with a little more emphasis on the second syllable. The state of being a peon is peonage.
In Play: In the Southwest US this word is still used in its Spanish sense of simply an unskilled laborer: "The US economy would falter without the undocumented peons in the workforce." However, peon is used most often simply to refer to people of little importance to someone: "The boss very seldom comes out to the floor; he tries to avoid contact with us peons."
Word History: Today's Good Word was originally Spanish peón "laborer, pawn" from Medieval Latin pedo, pedon- "foot soldier"; in fact, it originally meant "foot soldier" in Spanish. This word was reduced to paon in Old French whence it was borrowed as pawn by English. The French word for "foot soldier" became peonier, which slowly devolved into pionnier "pioneer". Somewhere in between, English borrowed it as pioneer. The Latin word originally referred to someone with wide feet, for pedo is derived from pe(d)s "foot", a root that became foot in English and pai "leg" in Persian. Now, the word for "garment" in Persian is jamah, so when Hindi borrowed the Persian word for "leg garment", the result was pajama. (Today we thank someone who is no peon at alphaDictionary, Susanne Williams, for suggesting this little word with such a large history.)