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The Price of Praise and Prizes, or Prizing up an Etymological Bottle

By Anatoly Liberman

In an essay posted a few months ago, I spoke about the origin of the verb allow and noted its insecure ties with Latin laudare “to praise.”  “Allow” and “praise,” as it turned out, form a union not only in English.  At that that time, I promised to return to the idea underlying the concept of praise and the etymology of the verb praise. Every man, it is said, has his price, and so does every praise.

All three words—price, prize, and praise—are of Romance descent.  In addition to the main sense of price remembered today (“money paid for something”), three more, the last two of which are no longer extant, should be added: “value, worth,” “honor, praise,” and “superiority.”  Similar semantic evolution took place in medieval German: Preis, now “price” and (!) “prize,” designated “value, fame; perfection; luck; merit; booty.”  The sense “price” surfaced around 1230 and was first current only in the language of merchants.  The source of Engl. price and German Preis was Old French pris (today’s prix), from Latin pretium “price; value; wages; reward.”  Thus, the Latin word already contained the ambiguity preserved by its West European offspring (“price” and “reward”).

The Middle English spelling of price was pris (as in Old French). The earlier attempts to render vowel length (priis, prijs) ended up in the establishment of the form price, in which c is as incongruous and in mice, dice, pence, and bodice, the plurals of mouse, die, penny, and body (pence is a contracted form; as for bodice, or a pair of bodies, compare a pair of stays).  The multiplicity of meanings in Latin pretium may perhaps be accounted for by the word’s etymology.  Pretium was formed from an adjective whose root meant “over, against, opposite to, toward.”  The starting point must have been “one thing put against another”; hence “equivalent.”  Both English and German have narrowed the original meaning of pris, but did so in different ways: German has retained “price” and “prize,” while English has “price” and “value.”

The interplay of “price” and “value” is subtle (compare to know the price of everything and the value of nothing), but, on the other hand, we have beyond (above) price, too high a price to pay for victory, and especially priceless.  It is rather hard to distinguish the two senses; the same seems to be true of price “odds” (in betting), isolated as a third sense of the modern noun.  In our consciousness (“linguistic intuition,” to use the jargon of contemporary scholarship), price has one rather vague referent, though the punning connotations of priceless (as though “lacking price”; compare valueless) are sometimes still felt.  Precious and appreciate have the easily recognizable Latin/French root of price.

Prize is an etymological doublet of price.  Most likely, it goes back to prise, some form of pris, in which s alternated with z according to the same principle that governs the distribution of voice in house ~ houses.  But for this split, price would have had an additional meaning (“reward”), as it does in German Preis.  However, the meaning of prize was influenced by its homophone prize “booty; ship captured at sea.”  This word is distinct from price.  Its etymon is Old French prise (the same in Modern French: compare Italian and Spanish presa), traceable to Latin præhendere “seize”; presa, as well as its cognates, is a feminine past participle of some verb like prendere and means “seized, captured.”  Since booty is a nice prize for victory in battle, it is no wonder that prize1 and prize2 became indistinguishable.  As long as we stay with reprisal “seizing of property in retaliation or by way of indemnity” and surprise “sudden attack or capture,” their connection with prize “booty” will pose no problems.  Comprise and enterprise need a more detailed discussion, but their root is the same as in surprise.  Old French prise also meant “to grasp”; hence prize “lever up.”  Pry, as in pry open and pry up, is an obscure back formation of prize, that is, prize, with the last consonant at one time seemingly understood as an ending.

Praise is a close relative of price, because Latin pretiare (continuing as Italian prezzare) is a derivative of pretium “price,” mentioned above.  Today, praise refers to a high approval of one’s performance, rather than simply expressing the worth of something, but Old French presier meant “price, value” in addition to “prize” and “praise.”  The positive sense of praise is not felt in appraise, which is an alteration of apprize under the influence of praise.  It came to English in the 15th century and meant “fix a price for”; the sense “estimate the amount or quality of” does not antedate the 19th century.  Appraisal, as we know, does not presuppose praise.

Although Latin kept the etymons of price and praise apart, their meanings were close even then.  The Old French words were also distinct, and so are their English reflexes, for we still have price and praise, but since both have something to do with evaluation, they tended to interfere with each other.  Then prize pried itself loose, as it were, from price and became a word in its own right.  Another prize (“booty”) joined the group and grafted itself on prize “reward,” thereby increasing the confusion. Praise became an important word in the language of the Church (praise the Lord) and superseded its ancient synonym herian, a verb, recorded in all the Old Germanic languages, including Gothic (hazjan) and especially memorable to those who studied Old English from Cædmon’s hymn.  The Latin for “praise” is laudare, and in the 14th century lose ~ alose (from Old French aloser, related to laudare) was in use, but neither form has survived.

Those who are interested in etymology often think that primitive roots constitute its subject matter or that only primeval reconstructed forms are worthy of attention.  Yet the history of borrowed words is sometimes no less intriguing and complicated, and the Romance element in Germanic is among the most attractive topics for a historian of the English language.  The tale unfolded above is confusing, but such is life itself, and language is the most accurate reflection of human activity.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  2. mollymooly

    ‘Old French prise also meant “to grasp”; hence prize “lever up.”’

    This sense is still spelt prise in British English. I’m not sure whether that makes things more or less confused.

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