By Anatoly Liberman
The adjective pretty had such a tempestuous history that it deserves an essay, even though no new facts are likely to shed light on the obscurities of its development. We will move from Old English tricks to Jack Sprat (surely, you remember: “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, / His wife could eat no lean; / and so betwixt them both, you see, / They licked the platter clean”), from Welsh praith “act, deed” to Russian bred “delirium” and end up pretty much where we were at the beginning.
One immediately notices the odd spelling of pretty or rather the lack of correspondence between the spelling and pronunciation: compare pretty with petty and ditty. Here I will repeat what I once said in connection with the spelling of English (why not Inglish?). As the result of the change called the Great Vowel Shift, long a (as in father) became ei, as in the present day name of the first letter of the alphabet, long e (as in German geben “give”) turned into e, again as in the English name of the letter. Short vowels followed suit and had their own weak version of the shift, producing an echo of the upheaval that transformed their long partners. For example, short e (as in Modern Engl. bed) became short i in some words (as in today’s bid). This change was rather consistent before ng (hence English and the substandard pronunciation ingine for engine). Pretty is one of the casualties of that minor version of the shift, but the word’s spelling remained archaic.
Old English had præt(t) “craft, art, wile” (æ designates the sound we now have in rat, sat, pat), and Modern Engl. prat “trick” is its continuation, but prats “buttocks,” which emerged from the depths of thieves’ cant, seems to be unrelated. The adjective prættig “crafty, wily” was derived from the noun. It had a doublet without r (of course, one could expect all kinds of nastiness from such a word). Despite a sizable number of pairs like speak (in Old English, specan coexisted with sprecan: cf. German sprechen), the mystery of the fugitive r has never been solved. By contrast, the meaningless prefix s- is so common all over Indo-European that linguists have resigned themselves to its existence and invented the term s mobile “movable s.” Consequently, Swedish spratt “trick” must be akin to Old Engl. præt(t). Prate “to blabber,” with similar forms in several Germanic languages, may be another cognate (from “speak with great emphasis, to conceal the vapidity of what is being said”?). The usual reference to sound imitation carries little conviction here.
The sense “crafty, wily” still lingers in some congeners of præt but mutated in others. Dutch, which along with Frisian, is the closest West Germanic relative of English, has prettig “amusing, pleasant, nice, agreeable; sportive,” and part, now used only in the phrase iemand parten spelen “play a trick on one; deceive” (the alternation of vowel + r ~ r + a vowel occurs in many words and is called metathesis). To illustrate this phenomenon, textbooks usually cite Engl. burst and burn versus German bresten and brennen. Perty, a phonetic doublet of pretty, has survived in dialects. It has nothing to do with pert “saucy” or German prächtig “splendid, magnificent.”
If we look at the entire spectrum of senses attested in pretty and its cognates over the centuries, we will get “deceitful, wily; tricky, cunning; brisk, roguish; moping; droll, amusing; pleasant, agreeable,” and finally “pretty,” that is, “daintily, but somewhat superficially attractive; charming” (as opposed to beautiful and handsome), “fine, neat, stylish” (though often ironical: cf. a pretty kettle of fish, a pretty muddle), and, when used adverbially, “to some extent, fairly” (pretty late, pretty much). The starting point was “deceitful”; English has deviated as far as possible from that point. Only when pretty modifies words like sick or late, there is nothing pretty about it. How could such a drastic shift happen?
Historical semantics knows two processes: the deterioration of meaning and the amelioration of meaning. The first process is very common (neutral words acquire pejorative characteristics or even become “unpronounceable”—not nowadays, to be sure); the second is much rarer, possibly because for meanings, as for people, it is easier with time to become ugly than beautiful. Yet improvement need not be ruled out. Fond (from “foolish” to “loving”) and nice (from “foolish” to “pleasant”) are anthologized examples. The entry pretty in The Century Dictionary closes with the following quotable statement: “For the development of pretty from ‘cunning’ or ‘skilled’ to ‘cunning’ or ‘tricky’, and thence to ‘neat, fine, small, and beautiful’, cf. the history of cunning, fine, neat. There is an unconscious sympathy with neat trickery, or a secret admiration of it, that imparts to words denoting it a quality of commendation; the epithets cunning, shrewd, clever, sharp, smart, keen, cute, etc., though they may insinuate dishonesty, are likely to be received with a secret complacency by those to whom they are applied.” Modern lexicographers, unlike Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, never reveal their sympathies and prejudices. Today they lay themselves out to observe the rules of political correctness, but in doing so they follow the party line rather than their convictions. The personality of Charles Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, is hidden behind his formulations, and it is only on such rare occasions as the above that we get a glimpse of what he thought of humanity and its follies. A secret admiration of trickery! Unconscious sympathy, commendation…. It is to be regretted that Scott never wrote a book on the history of English words in addition to a series of almost forgotten articles on etymology and brilliant entries in a neglected great dictionary.
The OED notes with surprise that the adjective prættig “cunning, astute, etc.” was known but rare in late Old English; then it almost disappeared and resurfaced only in the 15th century (“clever, skillful, apt,” now obsolete). Almost the same chronological gap characterizes the history of the noun prat “trick.” The family name Pratt is believed to go back to this noun; nicknames often became family names. Nothing is known about the ultimate origin of pretty and its cognates. The Welsh and Cornish look-alikes meaning “act, deed” are probably borrowings from Latin. Anyway, “deed” and “trick” are too far removed to provide a basis for initial comparison. Russian bred “delirium” is related to the root brod-, as in brodit’ “to wander aimlessly”; its similarity to pretty is, most likely, fortuitous. Germanic words beginning with p-, unless they are borrowings from Romance, are always problematic, and many researchers assign them to the so-called pre-Indo-European substrate, but since nothing is known about who spoke those extinct languages, the solution is largely self-serving.
Respectable authors used prættig in late Old English, and, as we have seen, it had cognates in other Germanic languages, but could it still be a slang word? Then its opaqueness would be less surprising, for we are often unable to trace even our modern colloquialisms and vulgarisms to their sources. Common Germanic slang is not such a fanciful concept as some people may think.
I am now returning to Jack Sprat. The Annotated Mother Goose informs us that originally the rhyme described Jack Prat (speak of s mobile!), for in the 16th and the 17th century such was the name given to dwarfs, who were commonly employed as jesters. In a 1639 collection that contained a version of the rhyme the following maxim appears at its end: “Better go to bed supperless than rise in debt.” How topical, how pretty!
Long, long ago a three-year old boy, the son of a pathologist, who, I hope, has become a fine man like his father and has children of his own, picked up a crawler from the ground and said admiringly: “What a pretty fat worm! I have to put it in a refrigerator.” To commemorate this event, which has hardly stayed in anyone’s memory except mine, I am posting a picture of that frozen charmer.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”