Printable Version
Pronunciation: pri-vee Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, Noun

Meaning: 1. [Adjective] Having access to confidential information (privy to plans of war). 2. [Adjective] Private, confidential, as a privy council, a council that advises a head of state on the most secret and confidential of matters. 3. [Adjective] Secluded, hidden, as a privy place to escape family. 4. [Noun] A bathroom or toilet.

Notes: Although the history below shows that privy and private share the same ultimate source, the meaning of the word changed at least as much as its forms. Private still refers to that which is personal and individual, but privy drifted to a sense of secluded privacy and thence to the sense of what is the only place of seclusion in the house, the bathroom. An interesting sidenote: American speakers change the pronunciation of privy in the noun, privacy, but the British do not. Americans look for a little privacy [prai-vê-see], but the British look for a bit of privacy [pri-vê-see].

In Play: The widest use of this word is in the sense of having access to confidential information: "Grinnell's secretary is privy to all his telephone calls, and she lets his wife know of anything suspicious." However, don't forget the other three: "The only privy place I have to read my privy mail is in the privy."

Word History: English has been lifting words from other languages for so long, it has often picked up two words from one by borrowing the same word at different historical periods of its development. Today's word originated with Latin privatus "deprived of (public office)" hence "private, civilian", the past participle of privare "to deprive". English borrowed the Latin form. As you know, however, French is simply Latin as it developed in France, so that word remained in French and became priv "private". We borrowed the French form, too, and it ended up as today's Good Word, privy. The Latin verb privare, by the way, is based on the adjective privus "single, individual", a word that shares its origin with the English word first. (Now I will make all our readers privy to the fact that Susanne Southwood is the individual who suggested today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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