Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing: The P-Word

Susie Dent’s guided tour of potty mouthed utterings is back at the letter P…

Susie Dent's History of Swearing: The p-word

Susie Dent’s guided tour of potty mouthed utterings is back at the letter P…

‘Prick of the day’ meant something rather different in the 16th century. The expression had nothing to do with idiots or male appendages, but signalled instead a precise and significant moment in time.  It was a juncture, a culmination – a ‘point’ –  and it is this idea that informs every use of ‘prick’ before or since, from the penis to the stab of a pin and on to a total pillock.

Prick’s etymology begins simply enough, with a Germanic family of words that described a puncture, tip, or dot. In Old English, a prick was a perforation in the body made by the piercing of a needle or other sharp implement. This hole would have been small – as opposed to the ‘thirl’ created by a sword or dagger  (which was itself to become our modern ‘thrilled’, meaning ‘pierced’ with excitement, and ‘nostril’, a ‘nose-hole’).

Notice anything?
John Everett Millais: Isabella, 1848-49.

From here ‘prick’s’ repertoire expanded. A horse might suffer a prick from a nail in its shoe, while a hare would leave a prick behind in the form of a footprint. More meanings quickly followed, all involving some indentation or puncture mark, from dots in writing and musical notation to instants in space and time.

By the 14th century, a prick was also a pointed weapon or spear, i.e. some kind of pointy instrument, and so it reached its inevitable anatomical conclusion by the 16th century with the words ‘The pissing Boye lift up his pricke’. ‘Pissing’, at the time of this early record, was an entirely neutral description, and ‘prick’ itself was far from taboo: it wouldn’t pick up its ‘dirty’ associations for some 200 years.

A close-up of the Braunscheidt’s Scarifier which is used to prick the skin with a number of needles to produce small wounds. Invented in 1850 by Carl Braunscheidt he called it ‘Lebenswecker’, awakener of life, it is kept at the Smithsonian Institute Old World Apothecary Shop, 1955. (Photo: Three Lions)

You might think that the ‘fool’ sense of ‘prick’ arrived much later – recently even – yet its first record comes only a few decades after mention of the penis-shaped prick. And what a record it is. John Florio’s A worlde of words, or most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English gives us a list of synonyms for, essentially, a twat: ‘A pillicock, a primcock, a prick, a prettie lad, a gull, a noddie’.

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

The equation between the penis and an idiot is of course long-standing – it’s there in ‘cock’, ‘dick’ and, by association, ‘tosser’ and ‘wanker’ too. It might surprise you then to learn that before this sense of ‘prick’ came about, slang gave it an altogether positive meaning, namely as a term of endearment towards a man. ‘My lyttel prycke’ is recorded in 1540 alongside another unlikely sweet nothing: ‘ballock-stones’. A ‘pryncocke’ (or ‘prime cock’), was a pert, saucy, vain or insolent young man, while an over-fastidious one was a ‘prick-me-dainty’. Clearly ‘prick’s’ dual personality offered a lot of punning potential.

Given its linguistic success, there followed a fair number of spin-offs. It stars in expressions as vivid as ‘like a spare prick at a wedding’ (i.e. ineffectual and superfluous, the equivalent of being ‘a spare dick on a honeymoon’), and ‘put some flick in one’s prick’, for anything that adds some extra oomph. And, of course, if you’re an arse, you will act the prick, prick around, or be idiotically ‘prick-nosed’.  

The slang dictionary also provides a depressingly misogynistic line-up of prick compounds, in which the ‘prick holder’, ‘prick purse’, ‘prick skinner’ and ‘prick hole’ became bywords for the vagina, and any woman deemed promiscuous was said to have ‘more pricks than a second-hand dartboard’.

This was always going to be a word with good and bad potential, whether you’re a prickmedainty or just a total prick. And if your time is occasionally punctuated by a prick du jour, you can choose your own definition. On the positive side, men have full dictionary support to invite their ‘lyttel prickes’ to the pub.  And perhaps, once there, offer them one drinking toast from the 19th century: ‘May your prick and purse never fail you’.


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