SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Prissy, and all that came around it.


Welcome to another installment of SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS, a regular Wednesday feature at NA Confidential.

But why all these new words?

Why not the old, familiar, comforting words, like the ones you’re sure to hear when asking the city’s corporate attorney why the answers to my FOIA request for Bicentennial commission finances, due to be handed over on July 8, still haven’t arrived on the 20th?

It’s because a healthy vocabulary isn’t about intimidation through erudition. Rather, it’s about selecting the right word and using it correctly, whatever one’s pay grade or station in life.

Even these very same flippant, bond-engorged municipal corporate attorneys customarily paid to suppress information can benefit from this enlightening expansion of personal horizons, and really, as we contemplate what they knew and when they knew it, all we have left is plenty of time — and the opportunity to learn something, if we’re so inclined.

Today’s seemingly simple word is prissy.



adjective, prissier, prissiest

1. excessively proper; affectedly correct; prim.

Origin of prissy: 1890-1895, Americanism; blend of prim and sissy

Related forms are prissily (adverb) and prissiness (noun). As might be expected, the Urban Dictionary is more pointed, but we’ll continue walking through what turns out to be a cultural minefield.

Word Origin and History for prissy: (adj) 1895, probably Southern U.S. dialect, first attested in Joel Chandler Harris, perhaps an alteration of precise (q.v.), or a merger of prim and sissy [OED].

Related: Prissily; prissiness.

[“]Then Mrs Blue Hen rumpled up her feathers and got mad with herself, and went to setting. I reckon that’s what you call it. I’ve heard some call it ‘setting’ and others ‘sitting.’ Once, when I was courting, I spoke of a sitting hen, but the young lady said I was too prissy for anything.”

“What is prissy?” asked Sweetest Susan.

Mr. Rabbit shut his eyes and scratched his ear. Then he shook his head slowly.

“It’s nothing but a girl’s word,” remarked Mrs. Meadows by way of explanation. “It means that somebody’s trying hard to show off.”

“I reckon that’s so,” said Mr. Rabbit, opening his eyes. He appeared to be much relieved.

[Joel Chandler Harris, “Mr. Rabbit at Home”]

At the start, I had a specific local personage in mind for “prissy” as used in a humorous topical sentence, but then I realized there is a far more challenging aspect to any examination of a word traceable to popular usage by Joel Chandler Harris.

In other words, his most famous/infamous creation, Uncle Remus.

Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from southern African-Americans. Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop’s Fables and Jean de La Fontaine’s stories. Uncle Remus is a kindly old former slave who serves as a storytelling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him …

… The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the narrator’s “old Uncle” stereotype were considered overly demeaning by many African-American people, reflecting what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the stories’ context, as they are set on a former slave-owning plantation and portrayed in a passive, even docile, manner.

A comprehensive determination of issues pertaining to Harris, Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and Disney’s subsequent adaptation (Song of the South) lies far outside my limited objectives in defining a quality of prissiness. However, it goes to show where these paths sometimes inadvertently lead.

As a personal note, my brain processes Uncle Remus differently. Say these words, and a very different song comes to mind, circa 1974.

The song was co-written by Frank Zappa and George Duke, and a broader discussion of it can be found at Google Books.