Daily Archives: February 15, 2015


Outside, the temperature is brisk, but the air boils: snow rolls and roils, billows and piles into soft pure pillows. When the storm is past and all is settled and halcyon, the world takes on a pure, primeval aspect: crystalline white, untrodden, a fantasy. This is the moment just after the fall. The sheet white of the land is a page yet to be written on, new, immaculate, not bearing the trace of any conception: no stripe, nor even the prints of a sprinter. Clean and glowing like spirit. Pristine.

Not only snow can be pristine. Forests, beaches, lakes, wilderness, but especially – in the words of today’s writers – anything clean, pure, and white: teeth, china, clothing, clouds… What is pristine is printless, priceless, primeval, like a clear running stream fed by snows from the dawn of time. It is not some passing pretty interest or painting to be pinned on your Pinterest; it is the epitome of ideals of purity. Time and tide have not happened to it yet.

Pristine puts me in mind of Seneca. I don’t mean the Seneca Nation of American Indians, although fantasies about the natural natives and unexplored wilderness could come into play. I mean the Roman author and statesman, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, playwright, stoic, advisor to Nero. His plays feature dark and brutal happenings, but they also feature a yearning for times that were not so dark and brutal. In Phaedra, Hippolytus, soon to be dragged to death by horses (though he doesn’t know it), rhapsodizes about the life in the forests primeval: “There is no life so free and innocent, none which better cherishes the ancient ways, than that which, forsaking cities, loves the woods.” He goes on to say that people in the primal age lived thus, in communion with the gods, without cities and civilization and greed, tools and towers. This is Seneca’s presentation of the pristine.

But where he uses the word pristine – its Latin etymon, to be precise – is in another play, Agamemnon: Clytaemnestra says “Surgit residuus pristinæ mentis pudor – quid obstrepis?” Which can be translated as “The remnant of my old time chastity revives; why dost thou cry against it?”

So pristinæ (an inflected form of pristina, feminine of pristinus) translates to chastity? No; that translates pudor (or mentis pudor; I think modesty would really be a closer translation, though). Pristinæ translates to old time.

Yes. Prior. Prime. The opposite of procrastinated (crastinus means ‘later’). Originally, even in English, what was pristine was, to quote Oxford, “Of or relating to the earliest period or state; original, former; primitive, ancient.” From this came a sense of “unspoilt by human interference,” as witness this quote from the 1910 Encyclopædia Britannica: “This presence of the pure, the pristine, the virginal in the verse, this luminousness, spaciousness, serenity in the land.” And from that we came to general freshness, spotlessness, newness.

Obviously this word pristine is not quite pristine, then; use has shifted its sense. Some would insist that it be reserved for things in an ancient and unspoiled state, either preserved or atavistic; one could not in this sense speak of pristine lines of modernist architecture. But languages changes all the time; rare indeed is the word that has not shifted form, sense, or both in the past millennium. This is not despoilment. This is simply change, which always happens. Do you see that new snow? Each pretty crystal is made of water that has passed through the cycle countless times since the world was new. It has been drunk, passed, watered on roots, transpired to the air, rained down from the clouds, swum in, frozen, thawed, boiled, made into snow and packed and shovelled and melted, and it will go back and do it all again. Everything does that. Every bit of matter in your body was once matter in some other animal’s body, and will in future times be matter in others still. Pristine is a fantasy. But on a fresh, snowy day, it is a pleasing one.

Pristina, on the other hand, is the capital of Kosovo. It is not a new place; people have been living thereabouts for a hundred centuries – a literal myriad of years – and it has had its name for at least seven centuries. It is not untouched; a war was fought there even not so long ago. And yet it has a lovely name, a name that brings to mind the printemps of time, prior to imprints. Its name does not come from the Latin, though. It sounds like Serbian for ‘boil’, but more likely it comes from a personal name, much changed over the ages.

Thanks to Benjamin Dreyer, @BCDreyer, who mentioned a month ago his appreciation for this word and so, without intending to, provoked this tasting.