• pratfall •
præt-fawl (-fawl) • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A fall on the bum, bottom, rear, butt. 2. A mortifying blunder, an inexcusable act of stupidity.
Notes: Although prat originally referred to the human rear end, today it generally refers to a foolish person or someone who has just done something foolish: "Take the lampshade off your head, you prat!" It fits anywhere the A-word goes, but reflects a speaker with a richer vocabulary. It is far more common in the UK and Australia than in the US.
In Play: The original pratfall was featured in the slapstick comedies of the 20s, a quick fall backward on the cushion apparently created for just such occasions: "Susan Liddy-Gates wasn't watching the black ice on the sidewalk and did a perfect pratfall in front of her date." However, because of the rate of population growth, metaphorical pratfalls must be much more common: "Telling the entire office that he had seen the boss's wife in Vegas with the new CFO turned out to be a major pratfall in I. Malone's short if spicy career at the company."
Word History: No one seems to know where the noun prat came from but its meaning seems to have originated in underworld argot. It is suspiciously identical in form to Scottish prat "cunning trick, prank." This noun was præt in Old English and it had an adjective prættig "tricky, wily, crafty." The adjective today is pretty. This ancestor of prat disappeared from published works until 1478. Did it pick up a new, less acceptable meaning during this period? This would explain why the meaning of pretty now is so far removed from that of prat. However, since we have no written record of this trail of changes, we can only surmise that it occurred.
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