Daily Archives: February 17, 2015


Hmm. Is this word pristine, or is it spry for such an old thing? Is it the very spring of printemps, or does it prick with brisk, crisp cold? Does it carry spirit or risk?


Age has spirit, and it has risks. This is surely a new word – to you, as it was lately to me – and yet it is actually pulled out from Oxford’s lexical cold storage. It has spring and vigour, like a name of a cold drink for hot days, and yet it is not new, and what it names is not new. It is pristine in its glittering appearance – and in the old ‘ancient’ sense of pristine.

Prisk is a rare, archaic Scots English word formed directly from Latin priscus. It means ‘old, ancient, old-fashioned, primitive’. Oxford’s only modern citation for it is from Forked Tongue by W.N. Herbert: “Sandy Hole Gaelic’s pirn’s unspoolan i thi prisk guschet o aa thocht’s birth’s biforrows.” If that sounds to you like old-style dialect from an ancient Scotsman who is pissed as an ewt, well, me too.

But it really is such a crisp word. Can’t we keep it? We could call Angela Lansbury “pretty, prisk, and spry”; we could refer to a coelacanth as a “prisk piscis” or just a “prisk fish.” There are, it’s true, other words with much the same sense, including two more descended from priscus: priscan and priscal. But neither of those is so brisk.

And why would we think we must limit ourselves to one word for any given semantic field? English is not a programming language. English is a collector’s language. No one with the collector spirit says “I have a camera; why would I need another?” or “I have one recording of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé; aren’t they fungible?” or “I’ve tasted a red Bordeaux; aren’t they all the same?” No, no, every word, even of ostensibly the same sense, has an at least slightly different flavour. A word is a performance; a word is a craftsman’s output. You can keep collecting them, from the prisk to the praecox, words without end.