When the word “prick” was a compliment

In the 16th century, your prick was your sweetheart. So what changed, and when?
January 25, 2023

After New Zealand’s outgoing prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, was asked a tricky question by a political opponent, David Seymour, in parliamentary question time last December, she was caught on hot mic muttering under her breath: “He’s such an arrogant prick”. The insult went viral. Not everyone will experience a moment when a microphone is on and a remark that was intended to be private is broadcast to thousands, but we all felt for her. She made the best of the situation by teaming up with the prick himself and auctioning off a signed copy of the transcript, raising $100,000 for a prostate cancer charity. The auction was called: “Ardern, Seymour join forces for pricks everywhere”.

Had Ardern lived in the early 16th century, her comment would have been a compliment. The word prick started out as a term of endearment for a man; your prick was your darling, your sweetheart. By the end of that century, it had extended in meaning to refer to “a penis”; by the beginning of the 17th century, it had also acquired its current meaning of “a conceited and contemptible person”. This process of semantic degradation—when a word acquires a more pejorative meaning over time—is not unusual in English. Think of wench, which originally meant “female child”, and silly which meant “happy, blessed”.

The original sweetheart sense of prick had died out by the Enlightenment, but the conceited sense continued to be used (albeit rarely) until the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity as coarse slang. Thanks to large datasets that allow us to track how word usage changes over time, we can tell that Ardern’s use of prick is typical of today: now the word most frequently occurs with three other words: arrogant, insufferable or soulless.

Ardern has not been the only person in recent months caught out swearing in public. Last October, the US president was overheard telling a mayor in Florida: “No one fucks with a Biden”. And on a Saturday morning that same month, the actor Miriam Margolyes enlivened listeners of BBC Radio 4 by telling the presenters, who had just interviewed her (the microphone was still on), that she had moments earlier bumped into the newly appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, in Broadcasting House. “When I saw him there, I just said, ‘You’ve got a hell of a job, best of luck’, and what I really wanted to say was ‘Fuck you, bastard’. But you can’t say that!” Indeed, she couldn’t say it, but she had said it—on live radio what’s more.