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shameless pleading

Princox

Not our sort, we hope.

Dear Word Detective: One of my favorite daily mailing lists (A.Word.A.Day) recently featured the word “princox.” Unfortunately, the origin was listed as “uncertain,” and my trusty Webster’s was no help, either. Surely, etymologists must have some guess. A blend of “prince” and “cock” maybe? — Holger, Germany.

Well, there you go. People tell me I’m crazy to save all my email, but I can search for messages way back into the early 1990s. That means that I probably have almost every A Word A Day message Anu Garg and the gang have sent since he started the list in 1994. It’s a great list, with more than one million followers around the world, and it’s free to join at wordsmith.org/awad.

The AWAD featuring “princox,” defining it as “a conceited person,” dates back to December 2012, when they were kicking off a week spotlighting terms for unpleasant people. They noted that “princox” is also spelled “princock,” and supplied “coxcomb” as a synonym. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which prefers “princock,” defines the word as “A pert, saucy, vain, or insolent boy or young man,” and labels it “chiefly humorous or derogatory.” That particular OED entry was updated in 2007, but I strongly suspect that the definition (“Pert”? “Saucy”?) is a relic of the 1908 first edition. Merriam-Webster.com defines “princox” as “a pert youth” and labels it “archaic.”

In any case, “princock” first appeared in print in the mid-16th century (as “pryncockes”), and cropped up in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of that century (“Well said my hearts, you are a princox, go.”). The second element of the word is almost certainly the familiar English word “cock,” either in the “male chicken” sense or the slang sense for what the OED is wont to quaintly term “the male generative organ.” The “x” ending would have been a common phonetic modification.

The “prin” part, however, is a bit of a mystery. Some authorities have suggested that it is a modified form of “prime,” a theory bolstered by the appearance of forms such as “primecock” in the 16th century. But such “prime” spellings are probably post-facto efforts at a “more correct form,” much as “Welsh rabbit” became “Welsh Rarebit” on fancy menus.

A somewhat classier theory about the entire word “princock” suggests some connection to the Latin adjective “praecox” as the source. “Praecox,” meaning “precocious, premature” (combining “pre” and “coquere,” to cook) gave us the now obsolete English adjective “precoce,” meaning “blooming or maturing early,” which might fit with the sense of “arrogant whippersnapper” in “princock.” The OED considers this theory “unlikely,” but there it is.

As a term for an insufferably conceited man or just an obnoxious twerp, “princock” or “princox” is very rarely heard today, and was, in any case, never nearly as popular as “coxcomb,” cited by many dictionaries as a synonym of “princock.” “Coxcomb” first appeared in the 16th century, and came directly from the earlier term “cock’s comb,” referring to the floppy red “comb” or crest on a rooster’s head. The variegated “fool’s cap” traditionally worn by jesters closely resembled a rooster’s “comb,” so the term “cock’s comb” (later “coxcomb”) came to mean simply a fool or idiot, then a foolish, pretentious and conceited “fop” (” I told him he was a Coxcomb, always pretending to be wiser than his Companions!” 1712).

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