Once every year, beginning in June, 2000, I’ve taken a random word from the dictionary and then worked a column around it. This year, my finger landed on “preen.”
Readers will know the first dictionary meaning of this verb: “To smooth or clean feathers with the beak or bill.” But how many of us have heard preen’s second meaning? “To trim or clean fur with the tongue as cats do.”
Preen is also used in reference to humans. Nelson puts it this way: “To dress or groom oneself with elaborate care; to primp; to take pride or satisfaction in oneself; to gloat.”
The OED offers no data as to when this word was first used in regard to people and says only that it was in use this way in the Late Middle Ages (1470-1550). This means its use to describe human primping will have begun very soon after preen entered English. Oxford dates the verb, to preen, meaning to clean feathers, to 1486.
Surprisingly, though, preen has an even earlier meaning. In 1470, it meant, “a thing of small value.”
Most dictionaries ignore an even further meaning because the usage is so obscure. Preen is used in dialects heard only in Scotland and Northern England. In these places, it has to do with pinning, piercing, and needlework.
As a verb, its dialectal meanings are: “to sew; to stitch up (1513); to pierce; to transfix (1572); to pin; to fasten with a pin (1572). Its uses as a noun in dialect are: “a pin; a brooch.”
Johnson’s 1756 Dictionary of the English Language offers both usages — feathers, and working with cloth. Johnson defines the verb, to preen, as: “To trim the feathers of birds to enable them to glide through the air.” He also says the noun, preen, means: “A forked instrument used by clothiers in dressing cloth.” This last meaning is now obsolete.
Research reveals preen to be a variant of “prune.” In fact, Johnson defines prune this way: “To dress; to prink.”
Prink originates in the Dutch, pranken (to show off).
Preen is most likely from Latin — pro (before) and unguere (to anoint). However, Middle English borrowed preen not from Latin but from the Old French, poroindre (to anoint before). Preen entered Middle English as preinen (prunen; proinen).
When we get right down to it, it’s surprising that preen, except as it pertains to feathers, is still with us today. How often is this word heard in conversation? How often do we come across it in writing? How often do we look at a cat and think of preening?
As noted, it’s barely mentioned in literature. English poet, John Masefield (1878-1967) did use preen in Daffodil Fields, where he wrote: “Past the Ryemeadow’s lonely woodland nook/Where many a stubble grey-goose preens her wing.” Masefield was poet laureate for England from 1930 until his death in 1967.
That‘s the sole literary reference I was able to find, although American humorist Mason Cooley (1927-2002), once quipped, “Young men preen. Old men scheme.”
Let’s leave it there.