• prowess •
præw-es • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: 1. Superior strength and agility in battle or athletic competition. 2. Superior skill or knowledge, mental agility.
Notes: For some reason, we don't like the adjectives from this noun. Two have been attempted, prowessed and prowessful, both grammatically well-formed, both failures. It is easy to see why.
In Play: Our word today more broadly refers to physical strength and agility: "Son, you're great on the football field; let's see your prowess with the lawn mower this weekend." Many writers use it to refer to mental agility, though: "Wendy Windblow's prowess at the water cooler keeps her well informed about what is going on in the office."
Word History: Middle English borrowed prowesse from Old French proesse, a noun based on prou "brave, virtuous", expanding the U to Double-U. (When U was written V, W was a double U.) The Old French word descended from Late Latin prode "useful, advantageous", which originally was prud "brave, virtuous" in Old French, at which point Paul Prudhomme's family name meant "proud man". Old English picked this one up, too, passing it on to us as proud. The Latin noun from prode was prodesse "to be of value", composed of prod-, a variant of pro- "for" appearing before vowels + esse "to be". Obviously, English borrowed pro outright (as in 'pro and con') even though the same Proto-Indo-European root came to it through its Germanic channels as for.
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