Tag Archives: prow

prow

Why wouldn’t the catamaran race with the other boats?

It was two prowed.

OK, OK, take a bow. You might as well; there’s two of them.

No, I’m not going to get into bow here; there are only so many hours in my day. I’ll just mention that bow as in the prow of a ship is related to bough as in a tree branch but is not related to bow as in bend from the waist or to bow as in tied ribbon. But mainly I’m here to tell you that prow is related to proud.

Oh, no, sorry, I don’t mean the prow that’s the front of a ship. That prow is related (way back, passing through Latin prora, which meant the same thing, and Greek πρῷρα, ditto, to Proto-Indo-European *pró) to pro as in professional and in every other word with the prefix pro-, as well as to premium and every other word with the prefix pre-. But it’s not related to proud.

So there’s another prow? There is, not only noun but verb and adjective as well. The noun means ‘advantage’ or ‘benefit’; you could speak of “the common prow” or of “doing someone prow.” The verb means ‘be of advantage’ and typically took (no one uses it anymore) an indirect object: “It would prow him.” The adjective means ‘worthy’ or ‘valiant’ and has in particular been seen several times in literature (from Spenser’s Faerie Queene through Tennyson and Hardy) in the phrase “the prowest knights.”

And is proud thus originally prowed? It is not. The derivation happened much earlier; in fact, like prow, proud comes from Latin prodesse, ‘be of value’; it kept the d in point of pride, whereas this prow did not. And then its vowel changed to derive pride from it, in a way similar to how we got fill from full and length from long. (This is called umlaut, a word most of us know as a metonymic term for the diacritic used to indicate it in some other languages.)

So the next question is… is this prow related to prowess? And yes, it is. Prowess is derived from prow (though the derivation happened in French, which English got it from; prou became prow and prouesse became prowess). Originally prowess referred to a valiant act, or to valour in general; over time it extended in sense to mean any particular skill… though it does still have some overtone of valour or at least of force, doesn’t it? Perhaps like a prow slicing proudly through the waves.

Which takes us back to the first prow, which also came to us from French (proue), which got it from Latin. You will recall I said that traces all the way back to the same Proto-Indo-European as gave us pro. You may also remember that I said that proud and prowess and so on come from Latin prodesse (‘do good, be of benefit’). Well, now I must note that that is the infinitive of the Latin verb prosum, which may look like a command in Excel but is from pro- (as in ‘before’ etc.) plus sum (‘I am’). So…

…yeah, I was untruthful. Proud is closely related to prowess and the prow you probably didn’t know about before, but it’s also distantly related to the prow of a boat. 

So I misled you. I’m not proud of it. But please don’t be stern.