Which Word Wednesday: Prim vs. Prissy

By November 2, 2011 language No Comments

Selections for Which Word Wednesday typically are chosen from a language debacle or mystery that I simply must put to rest. I must be in a language slump, because this week, I couldn’t think of even one example to draw upon.

Good thing we have The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language by Ron Evans. He provides a whole book full of examples. I flipped through the pages until this entry caught my eye: PRIM/PRISSY (ADJ.). That sounded interesting to me, so here we go, fellow language lovers!

We’ll start with the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

prim :: adjective
stiffly formal and respectable; feeling or showing disapproval of anything regarded as improper

prissy :: adjective
(of a person or their manner) fussily and excessively respectable

When I hear the word prim, I immediately think of proper, as in “prim and proper.” I’m not sure why I always yoke those two together. It also makes me think of someone who is British. I have no explanation for that.

As for prissy, I think of someone who would never go camping (unless it was glamping) because of the outdoorsy bathroom situation. (Interesting side note: OAD says that prissy has been around since the late 19th century, “perhaps a blend of prim and sissy.”)

I do not consider either prim or prissy to be complimentary. Evans supports this in The Artful Nuance:

A prim person is affectedly precise or proper, stiffly formal, and so fastidious in manners and morals as to displease observers.

Prissy . . . means “fussily prim” and connotes sassiness, suggesting an exaggerated sense of what is proper or precise.1

So prim people displease others with their stiff disregard for anything that doesn’t meet their standards for propriety. Prissy people are prim people who get sassy about it.

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What’s my WWW verdict? If you want to insult someone, use prim or prissy to describe her. But only if it is true—it wouldn’t be proper otherwise. (In no way am I being prim or prissy about this standard.)

What’s your verdict? Do you use prim or prissy to describe people? Are those descriptors properly applied now that you know the definitions and nuances? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 163.

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