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Word Wisdom: Preen

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

I heard an interesting statistic the other day. 50% of men under 35 spend at least 20 minutes preening themselves every morning. I’m not sure what all is included in ‘preening themselves’ but if it includes washing, shaving, flossing, teeth brushing, and dressing, I don’t often reach the 15-minute mark before we head out to the swimming pool in the early morning. I suspect it means more time in front of the mirror making sure everything is just right, since ‘to preen’ means to make oneself sleek or to dress up. I assume that the amount of time preening might have something to do with being in a secure relationship. There is less chance of spending much time preening if someone is not “on the market” for a personal relationship. At my stage, after 39 years of marriage, preening is not a high priority unfortunately. ‘You take what you get’ seems to be more common as we age in relationships.

Preening was originally used to describe birds, usually male, grooming themselves with their bill, rearranging the barbs and barbules of the feathers to distribute oil from the uropygial gland, to better attract females. One of the first writers known to apply preen to the human act of primping was Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) in The Canterbury Tales: "He preens himself and prunes and combs his curls / To take the fancy of this queen of girls."

Preen traces to the Anglo-French puroindre, combining pur (thoroughly) with oindre (to anoint or rub). It is also connected to the Old French poroindre (cut back or prune).

Middle English (1066 – late 1400s) used various spellings: prenen, prayne, prene, and preyne. Some linguists think it is a variation of the Middle English prunen or proynen, which, as mentioned above, was used to describe birds trimming their feathers with their beaks. The verb prenen, in Middle English, meant ‘to stab or pierce,’ from the noun prene (pin).

Whatever its origins, preen implies dressing and grooming oneself carefully and meticulously. Something that is often done in the mating rituals of birds and humans.

A morning preening is important for a penguin. Penguins start by cleaning and combing their feathers with their bill. Their neck is so mobile they can reach almost every single place on their body. After each motion they bring their bill to the preen gland, a double-sac organ as large as a pea, located on the back near the base of the tail, in which a waxy oil is found. By oiling their feathers with the oil from the preen gland, their feathers become waterproof. And so, they are protected against water penetration and the cold. This lubricant also reduces the friction of the water to a minimum, so a penguin seems to "fly" through the water. Preening can even be a part of the breeding process. Among penguin couples, it is a sign of love when they clean and oil each other’s feathers on the few areas which the other can hardly reach.

Preen can also mean to be proud of yourself because of a personal quality or achievement. The CEO preened himself on the success of the company’s newest venture. Preen can also mean to behave or speak of that pride with obvious self-satisfaction. It’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. Not necessarily an endearing quality.

We preen ourselves when going out into the public sphere but often become lazy on preening when just staying home. Sometimes a little preening can go a long way when greeting each other in the morning. A bit of preening can help with self-confidence and self-assurance. It might be useful to take a smidgen of time to preen each day.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 



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