The Slang of Prigs.

Rebecca Gowers has a delightful Guardian piece attacking the attackers of “horrible words,” a pastime always dear to my heart. Here’s her paragraph on prigs:

In Middlemarch, George Eliot has Fred Vincy make the splendid observation that “correct English is the slang of prigs”. The word slang started as a low term for low terms – an example of what it named. But by the 1870s, when Middlemarch was published, its meaning had widened so that it could now suggest the special vocabulary of a particular group. How the prigs managed to nab the labels “correct” and “proper” for their particular form of slang is another matter. But the fact is, they did. And it is in a spirit of dauntless righteousness that they continue to dismiss the English of lesser mortals as “uncivilised”, “vile”, “fatuous”, “abominable” and so on.

And here she is on transitivity:

Transitivity gets our senior advisers going. Heffer [Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English] declares that “one cannot” use collapse transitively (as in: “The search party that located the bodies […] simply collapsed the tent over them”, Telegraph). And Humphrys [John Humphrys, Beyond Words] confides that he is unmoved by the “sweet smile” of a waitress who says “Enjoy!” to him, wanting to ask her, “Don’t you know that ‘enjoy’ is a transitive not an intransitive verb?” A linguist would explain that, in this instance, there is an “unexpressed object”. The waitress herself, compelled to serve Humphrys, might like to reply that the OED cites intransitive uses of enjoy from 1380 on. Or she could just recite the example given from 1549: “Yet he neuer enioied after, but in conclusyon pitifully wasted his painful lyfe.”

Go get ’em, Rebecca! I myself will never write “miniscule” (it is for that very reason that I long ago adopted the donnish pronunciation “mi-NUS-cule,” so that I would never be tempted in the wrong direction), and I will always wince at singular “kudo,” but she is absolutely right to mock those who pretend that such usages are the downfall of English. Read, and enjoy, the whole thing. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Jim (another one) says:

    “And Humphrys [John Humphrys, Beyond Words] confides that he is unmoved by the “sweet smile” of a waitress who says “Enjoy!” to him, wanting to ask her, “Don’t you know that ‘enjoy’ is a transitive not an intransitive verb?””

    So Humphry’s doesn’t think “Kill!” is transitive. I bet the person on the other end of that verb does.

    “Heffer [Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English] declares that “one cannot” use collapse transitively (as in: “The search party that located the bodies […] simply collapsed the tent over them”, Telegraph). ”

    A peever who doesn’t know English as well as she thinks she does. She seems never to heard of ambitransitive verbs, although she uses one in his example without comment and complains of the other one.

  2. David L says:

    Rebecca Gowers is the great-granddaughter of Sir Ernest “Plain Words” Gowers — is he well known in the US?

  3. I’m afraid not.

  4. miniscule

    Yeah, I don’t consider myself conservative in matters of spelling (I generally like the Websterian reforms in AmEng and in some cases think they didn’t go far enough*), but I dislike changes that seem to mess with classical etymology. For example, I go for artefact and [de]/[in]/[re]flexion wherever possible.

    *One example being chancellor. In AmEng one who counsels is a counselor and one who sits on a council is a councilor, so one who (notionally) stands at a chancel should be a chancelor.

  5. Eli Nelson says:

    The peeving in these passages is in my opinion on an even lower level than complaining about “miniscule” or “kudo.” At least there is something real that can be objected to in both of these usages (even if it isn’t logical to object to it). You need a certain level of knowledge about classical etymology and Greek morphology to describe why these are disliked by prescriptivists, and this kind of information can be interesting to learn, even if a peeve is not the best way to present it. But the cited complaints about transitive “collapse” or putatively intransitive “enjoy” seem completely incoherent. There is no reasoning or argument here; the authors just pass judgement based on their first emotional reaction. If we tried to extend these judgements in a logical fashion, we would conclude that it’s wrong to say things like “Eat up!”

  6. Exactly, and I think it’s useful to beat people over the head with the fact that peevers, however much they claim to be concerned about logic, grammar, and the like, are actually peeving for peevery’s sake, and they don’t give a damn about reality.

  7. I have a vague sense that “Enjoy!” as an imperative intransitive is a feature of Jewish English, and may for that reason be disfavored. In 1960, the Jewish-American humorist Harry Golden published a collection of newspaper columns titled “Enjoy, Enjoy!”, so he obviously thought it was a Jewish expression (his other collections have titles like “Only in America,” “For Two Cents Plain,” and “So What Else is New?”)

  8. Most of Ms Gowers’ refusals to condemn are just common sense – but “unforbidding” and “undoubtlessly”? These are needlessly (perhaps in a few decades it’ll be unneedlessly) confusing. It’s not always a Bad Thing that malapropisms remain malapropisms. Admittedly I’ve only ever heard “unforbidding” once, and have never heard or read “undoubtlessly” until now, but if it’s on the rise then Alaric’s hordes really are at the gates, grumble grumble.

  9. I have a vague sense that “Enjoy!” as an imperative intransitive is a feature of Jewish English.

    Cf. W. S. Burroughs, Exterminator!: “You vant I should spit right in your face!? You vant!? You vant? You vant!?”

  10. January First-of-May says:

    Sorry for such a stupid question: what the triangular heck is a prig?

    I won’t be surprised if it’s explained in the article itself (hadn’t checked it yet), but in the context of your post, the word just feels like a random unintelligible syllable. The slang of prigs? what the ch*rp is a prig? it might as well be “the slang of gostaks” for all I understand the term (it’s some kind of slang, presumably, and that’s about it).

    From the context, as much as there is one, sounds like “prig” is short for “privileged”. If so, it is not a term I have encountered before (and looks like it came out of the 1970s rather than the 1870s). If not, it is still not a term I have encountered before, but I look forward to seeing its actual etymology.

    waits as someone posts a link to a Language Hat post from the early 2000s about that very term… just kidding, of course, but I won’t be surprised if such a post does exist

  11. Well, there is a dictionary link just to the right, you know; the AHD defines it as “A person who demonstrates an exaggerated conformity or propriety, especially in an irritatingly arrogant or smug manner” and says [Origin unknown].

  12. The OED also says “Origin unknown” and gives citations from 1676 (G. Etherege Man of Mode iii. iii. 51 What spruce prig is that?) to 1999 (Houston Press 19 Aug. To cover their tracks the swashbucklers take on the personas of ‘froufrou’-wearing prigs).

  13. marie-lucie says:

    the swashbucklers take on the personas of ‘froufrou’-wearing prigs

    I am familiar with the words “swashbuckler” and “prig”, but I wonder about the froufrou.

    In French this word evokes the slight noise produced by some delicate fabrics rubbing together, as in ruffles of lace or taffeta such as were worn by fashionable, wealthy ladies in earlier centuries. The garments consisting of, or decorated with, the ruffles, etc in question (such as fancy lingerie, ornate blouses or ball gowns) are also called des froufrous. I find it hard to reconcile these graceful but frivolous garments with the personalities attributed to “prigs”. I have never heard of female prigs, but “bluestocking” might have similar connotations. The women called disparagingly “bluestockings” (French bas-bleus) were definitely not fond of froufrous even if they could have afforded them.

  14. On the subject of nineteenth-century novelists and slang, I always liked Gaskell’s defense of factory slang in North and South .

    ‘As you please. As Dixon pleases. But, Margaret, don’t get to use these horrid Milton words. “Slack of work:” it is a provincialism. What will your aunt Shaw say, if she hears you use it on her return?’

    ‘Oh, mamma! don’t try and make a bugbear of aunt Shaw’ said Margaret, laughing. ‘Edith picked up all sorts of military slang from Captain Lennox, and aunt Shaw never took any notice of it.’

    ‘But yours is factory slang.’

    ‘And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you never heard in your life. I don’t believe you know what a knobstick is.’

    ‘Not I, child. I only know it has a very vulgar sound and I don’t want to hear you using it.’

    ‘Very well, dearest mother, I won’t. Only I shall have to use a whole explanatory sentence instead.’

  15. Well, it turns out that knobstick, besides the obvious meaning ‘stick with a knob on one end’, also means ‘strikebreaker, scab, black-leg’. A knobstick wedding is equivalent to a shotgun wedding, except that the threat of force is not coming from the woman’s parents (prototypically), but from the community, in the form of the staff of office carried by churchwardens.

    But I, like Mamma, never heard of any of this.

  16. I always liked Gaskell’s defense of factory slang in North and South

    An excellent quote!

  17. Narrow Margin says:

    Ernest Gowers was the editor of the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

  18. @marie-lucie: You may be confusing “bluestocking” with “bluenose,” since the latter is another word for a prig. However, it’s pretty uncommon in the U.S., and I don’t know how it is used in Canada; I just looked it up, and “bluenose” apparently has another meaning that I was not familiar with: a person from Nova Scotia.

  19. We say frou-frou all the time. Why? Oh! Of course: referring to gratuitous flourishes in the calligraphy of students.
    Presumably we got it in France, so much of our teaching being in French.

  20. matematichica says:

    The OED hasn’t updated “froufrou” since 1898, but I would use it to mean fancily (and perhaps frivolously) dressed. The connotation of ruffles is present for me, but I don’t think of it as the sound that fancy fabrics make–that would be “scroop.”

    Most male prigs today probably wouldn’t be described as being “froufrou,” but I could easily imagine “froufrou” as a description for male court dress in the 18th century or something–note that the use of “swashbucklers” would seem to indicate that the Houston Press may not be describing prigs from 1999, but rather an earlier era of prigs.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Brett: You may be confusing “bluestocking” with “bluenose,” since the latter is another word for a prig

    No, I did not know “bluenose” in that meaning. I did not mean that “bluestocking” meant “female prig”, only that they were both derogatory terms for some persons concerned with language.

    “bluenose” apparently has another meaning that I was not familiar with: a person from Nova Scotia.

    Indeed, I have been living in Nova Scotia for twenty-five years and more, and “bluenose” is in everyone’s vocabulary here and used in many commercial names. It was first used as a slang word for the local fishermen, since being exposed to wind on the sea in the cold winters turns one’s nose so red that it is “blue”. Nova Scotia was a renowned centre of wooden shipbuilding in the days of sail, and in a 19th century competition between clippers (on a regular route between Canada an England), the winner was a ship built in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia called the “Bluenose”. This ship became so famous that its picture is still on the 10-cent Canadian coin. As it got too old to sail, a replica was built, and now there is a third Bluenose, used as a tourist attraction.

    Let me take this opportunity to plug Nova Scotia and especially Lunenburg, a town which is now a Unesco World Heritage site (somewhat more touristy than it used to be, but still with a character all its own).

  22. marie-lucie says:

    matematichica: Thanks for the comment. Yes, “froufrous” could apply to 18C male court dress with lace or similar fancy textile worn below the neck. So, a “froufrou-wearing prig” would have been as fussy about his use of words as in his dress (or vice-versa).

  23. And with a unique variety of non-rhotic Canadian English for the dialect tourists among us.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    I think that that dialect is on its way out. I have not spent enough time in Lunenburg or with natives of the place to notice all these peculiarities.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is hard to kig against the prigs, as the scriptural passage almost puts it.

  26. tangent says:

    The OSED history of prig suggests it did have the specific use for “fop” within prig‘s sense of “an affectedly precise person” before the precision became more specifically in morals and conformity. A fop could very well have been into froufrou.

    OSED also informs me that in M16 prig meant “a tinker, a petty thief” and then “an unsympathetic person”. And that the early sense survived into M18 in priggism, “professional crime”.

  27. I know there’s no etymological relation, but the discussion here reminds me of a bit that Larry David has delivered on a couple occasions about the difference between a poor schmuck and a rich prick, and how he transitioned from the one to the other without feeling much change at all.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    tangent: thanks for finding “fop”, just the right meaning to understand the link “prig-froufrou”.

  29. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Ernest Gowers was the editor of the second
    and best
    edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

  30. There’s a Comte de Frou-frou in the third Blackadder series (and he is indeed a foppish, bluenosed prig).

  31. @TR: Is he really a fop, bluenose, or prig if it’s all an act?

  32. Narrow Margin says:

    The second edition may indeed be the best, but I have a sentimental attachment to the first, where Fowler’s sarcasm and arched eyebrow appear more often, before Gowers (whom I greatly respect) smoothed the edges.

  33. I too prefer Fowler Classic.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    I have a vague sense that “Enjoy!” as an imperative intransitive is a feature of Jewish English

    I don’t know about Yiddish, but a high density of unexpressed objects is a feature of Slavic languages.

  35. colin neilson says:

    I always thought there was a Yiddish root to the Imperative “Enjoy !” and that it came from America. I first heard it used by a waitress in Cape Town in 1968. And by David Mellors on Classic FM last night introducing a piece by Balakirov. But it jars and I feel it should be avoided not only by prigs but by all who love good English.

  36. John Cowan says:

    Another suspected but un-obvious Yiddishism of probable Slavic origin is the use of fruit meaning ‘piece of fruit’. The OED1 (1898) has only one quotation for this, and it is Australian: “The Mandarin has borne 4,200 fruits in the year.”

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Could be German, where Frucht is a count noun, plural Früchte, and the mass noun for the whole category (never just one species) is Obst.

    Botanical English, too, talks about countable fruits; I don’t think I’ve ever encountered piece of fruit before.

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