• preen •
Pronunciation: preen • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: 1. (Animals) To clean and arrange feathers or fur with a beak or tongue. 2. To meticulously groom oneself, to primp, spend much time and devote much attention to dressing up. 3. Puff up with pride, congratulate oneself, gloat, exult.
Notes: Preen, when referring to people, has a slightly derogatory connotation. It is another one of those rarities in the English language: a word spelled exactly as it is pronounced. It has but one confirmed lexical relative, preener "someone who preens".
In Play: The original sense of this word referred to animals, mostly birds: "The tall white egrets preen themselves, squawk, and soar majestically, like snowy B-52s." However, the metaphorical use of it quickly became a new sense: "Maude Lynn Dresser ignored her guests for most of the evening, standing before a mirror constantly preening herself."
Word History: In Middle English this word was proinen, preinen "to straighten feathers with the beak", a blend of Old French proignier "to prune" and poroindre "to anoint". Proignier was pruner by Middle French, when English borrowed it for its verb prune. Old French poroindre was a derivation comprising por "for, to" + oindre "to anoint", the French descendant of Latin unguere "anoint". But the French verb probably goes back to or was influenced by the Latin noun unguen(t) "fat, salve". The Latin word is a direct descendant of Proto-Indo-European ongw-en "to smear, anoint". Outside Latin, remnants the PIE word only turn up around the periphery of the Indo-European languages: Sanskrit anakti "smears", Breton amann "butter", Cornish amenen "butter". (Rob Towart should preen himself [meaning 3 above] for today's intriguing Good Word and the long series of others he has suggested over the years.)