Much classier than “stick out,” I guess. But it’s still a freakin’ tree.
Dear Word Detective: I had lunch with a friend today and we got to talking about Christmas trees (we talk about all sorts of stuff). He described his pre-lighted tree as having lights that “sat proud of the branches.” I don’t believe I ever heard anyone use that term in actual conversation. Where does it come from? He thought woodworking. I said, “Or maybe it’s nautical.” He just sneered. — Bob McGill.
Well, there you go. That’s why I don’t have friends. Always sneering at you, undermining your confidence by mocking your socks, whispering things to your dog when they think you’re not looking, posting pictures of livestock on Facebook tagged with your name, and nominating you to A&E for some horrible reality show about untidy collectors. They claim they care about you, but I’ll take a house full of loyal ducks any day.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually say “sat proud” either, and I’m sort of envious. I once used the word “fungible” in a chat about furnace filters with the guy at the hardware store downtown and I’m pretty sure he thought I was talking about mold. I just like the word. It comes in handy, at least in some alternate universe in which I don’t happen to live.
“Proud,” of course, is a venerable English adjective meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “Feeling greatly honored, pleased, or satisfied by something which or someone who does one credit; acutely aware of some honor done to oneself, taking pride in something” or “Having a high or exalted opinion of one’s own worth or importance.” The root of “proud,” which first appeared in Old English, was the Old French “prod,” which meant “good, noble, prudent, wise, profitable” and similar things, which in turn came ultimately from the Latin “prodesse,” meaning “to be of value; to be good.” The noun “pride” is actually derived from the adjective “proud,” and, oddly enough, “proud” is also a noun in its own right, meaning “a proud, noble or stately person or thing” or a group of people who are proud (“The blazings of the proud will goe out in a stench and smoke,” 1628). It can even be an adverb, specifically in the phrase “to do [a person] proud,” meaning “to be a source of pride” or “to treat someone well” (“Lunch at Pauline’s. She did me proud — a half-bottle of champagne and a delicious meal,” 1986).
Meanwhile, back at “proud” the adjective, a variety of extended senses gradually developed over the centuries. “Proud” was used to mean “noble” or “stately,” “vigorous” or “valiant” (“proud warrior”), or, applied to a turbulent sea or river, “strong, tumultuous.” Of a plant or crop, “proud” meant “full of sap” or “luxuriant in growth,” especially when said plant was growing out of season (“If the winter has been open and mild, the autumn-wheat plant will have grown luxuriantly, .. so … that it may have become ‘proud,’ that is, in a precocious state of forwardness for the season,” 1844). “Proud” in this sense is also used to describe the first buds of a tree or other plant in spring.
Your friend’s use of “sat proud” to describe Christmas lights projecting notably from the branches of his “pre-lighted” tree is derived from this sense. It’s a use that first appeared in print in Scotland and Northern England in the early 19th century meaning “projecting from a surface; slightly raised,” and it can be applied to just about anything that projects or stands out from its environment (even, apparently, in automobile design: “The horn push, sited right across the central spoke of the steering wheel, is well proud of the spoke and this gives rise to occasional, accidental blasts,” 1974). “Sit proud” is a form of the established idiom “stand proud,” meaning simply “stick out” or “project.” This sense does seem to be used often in carpentry to describe a part of something that, whether by design or by accident (e.g., an errant floor board), sticks out, so your friend was onto something in his “woodworking” guess. But there’s no call for sneering.