Has pristine lost its innocence?

A look at how a word that started off meaning ‘ancient’ or ‘original’ has come to mean brand new.’

Johan Persson/Jeffrey Richards Associates/AP
'Wolf Hall' stars Ben Miles (l.) and Lydia Leonard (r.).

Has pristine lost its innocence? Or did it have it in the first place? A reader writes from Australia that this word gets “bandied about very loosely these days.”

Pristine seems a good example of how a word can make slight shifts in meaning over time – like the “slight right” or “slight left” in your route that you don’t notice until the voice of Google Maps mentions it – and end up in rather a different place from where it started.

Pristine comes from the classical Latin pristinus, meaning “former, previous, ancient, old.” (You know the pri element from words like prior.)

Its earliest meaning was “Of or relating to the earliest period or state; original, former; primitive, ancient,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The  first usage example is from a 1534 letter from Anne Boleyn, referring to someone “restored to his pristine fredome.”

Four and a half centuries later, on the other side of the ocean, The New York Review of Books used pristine in Boleyn’s sense in 1992: a reference to “a New England Yankee [whose] upbringing ... bred into him the values of American democracy in their most pristine and aboriginal form.”

Early in the 20th century, though, another sense of pristine emerged: “unspoilt by human interference, untouched; pure.” The “purity” in the second definition connects with the idea of “original state” in the first. The two are distinct, but not unrelated.

Oxford cites an Australian newspaper’s 1991 use of this “new” pristine: “dumping of tons of toxic chemicals into the region’s once pristine streams and      rivers....”

A third sense arose in the mid-20th century: “Of a man-made object: spotless, pure in colour; fresh, as good as new; (also) brand new, newly made, unused.” Oxford cites a William Faulkner story from 1940: “the Justice raised one hand, in its enormous pristine cuff....”

The usage question here is whether these two new uses are just too Johnny-come-lately for serious writers. 

The online Oxford English Dictionary quotes the 1982 OED Supplement, which observed that these uses “are regarded with disfavour by many educated speakers.” But in that they continue to be “well supported,” the dictionary adds, citing one eminent editor, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to find fault” with them.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but not a condemnation, either.

And while we’re at it, what about “bandied about”? It’s one of those idioms that come up in only a very few specialized contexts: “His name has been bandied about in connection with the dean of students position that has just opened up.”

Here’s the scoop from the Online Etymology Dictionary: Bandy turns out to be an Irish game, a sort of proto-hockey. To bandy something about is thus to knock it around like a hockey puck. The name of our hypothetical prospective dean might be said to be “in play.” Not very respectful for a dean, I would suggest. But there you have it.

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