Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Reader's Question, Lounge's Answer

Subscriber Bertha from England asks:

I enjoyed reading your article Writer's Craft in March, and will take great care when using the word "craft." I was actually surprised to learn that using it with regard to writing a position paper amounts to some abuse (or misuse! I have often stated that in my work!

On to what I really want to comment on: a recent word of the day "preen." I looked up synonyms and discovered one "primp" whose meaning appears to be similar if not the same as a word used in the US "pimp" as in "pimp my car." I first heard this expression while watching a television programme showing a group of mechanics who transform an old, beaten up, rusty car into a new wonderful and very attractive vehicles with all sorts of fittings in the interior. At the end when the owner of the vehicle sees how transformed it it they exclaim, "Thank you Mr. X for pimping my ride!" Now, I wonder, are the two words the same?

Orin Hargraves answers:

Though primp and pimp are similar, they evolved independently in English. Pimp (originally a noun) was used as a verb as early as the 17th century, but not in the sense you describe - it originally (and still means) 'act as a pimp; pander.' Primp, on the other hand, is a slightly newer word and came from the word prim, which we know mainly as an adjective, but which was also a verb in its early history. I expect that the modern use of pimp you note is influenced by pimpmobile (first recorded use: 1973), which of course arose naturally from the observation that pimps are in the habit of driving big flashy cars.

Supporting your idea however, is a widely occurring phenomenon in English: new words and new senses of words very often succeed because they just sound right - in some cases, because they sound like a word that already has a meaning similar to the one in question. You might find the first Language Lounge (January 2005), about sound symbolism, pertinent to this idea.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Monday October 28th 2013, 8:15 PM
Comment by: Oscar R.
thank you all for be a important part

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