As I said in my last word tasting, smugness smothers like an overstuffed overpriced cushion, but priggishness pricks like a cactus. A prig is someone who is unassailably conceited on a point of correctness, self-righteous with the primness of certainty of moral as well as factual correctness. And it is not enough for a prig to be right; there must also be someone who is correspondingly wrong. Indeed, I think that prigs choose their opinions precisely on the basis of being able to flatly “correct” others on occasion. As George Eliot put it in Middlemarch, “A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.”
There is, I should say, no sure etymological connection between prig and prick (though a person who is called the former might well also be called the latter). There is also no known connection between prig and any other word such as sprig or brig or rig, because, to be plain, its origin is unknown. Its earlier senses included ‘thief’ and ‘dandy, fop’, and the latter shaded into the present usage, but before about the time of Shakespeare we have been unable to get a grip on prig, source-wise. Sound-wise, it may well gain from the “pr” we hear on prick and prim and proper and a few other words of similar tone, and perhaps from the stiffness or restriction of sprig, brig, and rig. But there’s no way to know that for sure. Not that priggishness requires any support – it is entirely self-assured – but linguistics sure does. Which is one reason linguistics is a natural enemy of priggishness.
I’ve wanted to write on prig for some time, but each time I’ve had the thought to do so, I’ve determined to wait for a bit so that I won’t seem to be focusing on some specific person I’ve had an interaction with online. The problem is just that by the time the smoke from one such interaction has wafted away, either I’ve forgotten about the topic or – at least as likely – another prig has come along.
You see, when it comes to grammar and usage, well-informed, open-minded views draw prigs like a fruit basket draws flies. As soon as I use linguistic fact and understanding to contradict some reactionary mumpsimus (remember, “unalterable tradition” is what any given change-hater recalls learning in their childhood, even if it was new at the time and even if they have not accurately remembered it), I can count on someone showing up to flatly contradict me. They don’t present any counter-argument; they simply say I’m wrong, and that’s that, as though they had such authority that I ought to accept it and sit down and be quiet.*
I’m not the only language person to encounter this – not by a country mile. Others with higher profiles than I encounter it even more. My fellow editor and friend John McIntyre recently posted a column on letting go of long-held usage rules, and in it he quoted one person on Twitter who took exception to letting go of one particular “rule”: “actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, ‘they’ and ‘their’ as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason.” (This statement is wrong in every detail, incidentally, not just analytically in the present but in terms of historical fact too; I’ve written and presented on the topic in detail already.) As John said in a tweet about the column, “Apologies to anyone from whom I may be taking away things that make them a prig.”
But of course one of the things about prigs is that they refuse to have those things taken away. A prig is someone who clings to the last floating matchstick of a sunken ship and declares themself captain of it. Often that sunken ship is some idea of intrinsic superiority that is actually the ghost of class (well, “ghost” in the same was as a person may leave a “ghost” in an elevator after a lunch of beans and cabbage, and the next people into the elevator will not see a spectre of them but will certainly know something ghastly has passed). A most famous prig – indeed, the one person whose name comes up repeatedly if you search “prig” today – is Jacob Rees-Mogg, an English politician who has resolutely determined to mistake class signifiers for infallible marks of intelligence one hundred percent of the time.
Another political figure I have seen called priggish is John Bolton, erstwhile US “diplomat” (technically yes, but astoundingly undiplomatic) and national security adviser, whose signature move is lecturing other people and being unable to conceive of any occasion in which he could possibly be even slightly in the wrong. Both Rees-Mogg and Bolton are blue-ribbon members of the “geez, you must be fun at parties” set, and this is an essential quality of prigs: above all, they do not, they may not, have fun. Fun is childish, and they are fully invested in being superior, which means absolutely not childish. You may on occasion see the phrase “joyless prig”; in truth, it’s pleonastic, but use it anyway if it pleases you. As one Reverend Alexander Carlyle wrote in his 1860 autobiography, among the clergy, “The prigs are truly not to be endured, for they are but half learned, are ignorant of the world, narrow-minded, pedantic, and overbearing.”
Which says, in its way and with more words, about what George Eliot said. The motion of the prig is upbraiding. Pigs might fly, but prigs will not – but they will sit on their dilapidated rooftops trying to shoot down anyone who does.
*Which, if you know me, is pretty funny. I have many weaknesses and undesirable traits, and I can certainly be provoked, but if you try to bully me on matters of understanding of language or general perspicacity it is not going to go as you appear to have envisioned it. I may have been bullied many ways as a kid, but, if I’m being honest, when it came to matters intellectual, I was the bully, so much so I didn’t even notice or admit it. And was I priggish? Yeah, probably, but mainly when I was wrong. Priggishness is rigid and rigidity is the best way to be wrong.