The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s give ‘proper’ its props

Q: I’m visiting Britain and just heard the waiter refer to a “proper” latte. This use of the word to express authenticity strikes me as worth thinking about. Americans tend to use “proper” to mean formal, though Aretha sings “give me my propers when you get home.”

A: To most Americans, the adjective “proper” means correct or suitable or decorous, and it appears in phrases like “proper English,” “proper attire,” “proper behavior,” “proper diet,” “proper procedure,” “proper tool,” and so on.

These are the most common senses of the adjective found today in American dictionaries. Those senses are common in the UK too, but the word is also used much more broadly there, according to current British dictionaries.

British speakers commonly use the adjective to mean genuine, as in “a proper doctor,” or excellent of its kind, as in the “proper latte” that got your attention. (These senses of the word aren’t unknown in American English, but they’re less common here than in the UK.)

A couple of other uses are found only in British English, where most dictionaries label them “informal” or “dialectal.” Here “proper” is an adjective similar to “total” (“a proper mess”), an emphatic term used pejoratively (“a proper idiot”), or an adverb like “completely” (“he was proper furious”).

All in all, English speakers certainly have gotten a lot of use out of “proper.”

The word came into English with the Norman Conquest, when it was borrowed partly from French (proper) and partly from Latin (proprius), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In its earliest incarnations, some 800 years ago, “proper” meant largely what it means today.

The OED defines the earliest sense as “suitable for a specified or implicit purpose or requirement; appropriate to the circumstances or conditions; of the requisite standard or type; apt, fitting; correct, right.”

The dictionary says the word is “implied” in its first example, from an early document that actually uses the adverb propreliche (“properly”):

“Lokið hu propreliche þe lauedi in canticis … leareð ow bi hire saȝe hu ȝe schule seggen” (“Look how properly the lady in the canticles … taught you by her words how you shall speak”). The citation from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from before 1200, is found in a passage about how to turn away a would-be seducer.

The dictionary’s first example of the word without the adverbial ending (the proper “proper,” one might say) appeared more than 100 years later. The citation is from a Middle English translation of a French religious treatise, and again the word means suitable or correct:

“amang alle þe heȝe names of oure lhorde, þis is þe uerste and þe mest propre” (“among all the high names of our lord, this is the first and the most proper”). The quotation is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (1340), a title that loosely means “the prickings of conscience.”

That same work was also the first to record “proper” in another sense—characteristic of a particular person, place, or thing. This is the quotation:

“Vor þis wordle is ase a fayre, huer byeþ manye fole chapmen, þet of alle þinges hi knaweþ þe propre uirtue and þet worþ” (“For this world is as a fair, where there are many wicked peddlers who know the proper value and worth of all things”).

The use of “proper” to describe a name or noun that gets a capital letter—what we now call a proper noun—showed up in the early 14th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary gives this example from the story of Mary Magdalene in the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures: “Heo was icleoped in propre name, þe Maudeleyne” (“She was called in proper name, the Maudeleyne”).

Some of the other meanings of “proper” we’ve mentioned are also many hundreds of years old, according to OED citations. It’s been used to mean admirable or excellent since the 1370s, and it’s meant genuine or real since the 1390s.

The British sense of the word as a derogatory intensifier (as in “a proper idiot”) has also been in use since the late 1300s. In The Legend of Good Women, a poem written by Chaucer around 1385, someone is described as a “propre fol” (“proper fool”).

And even the adverbial usage, in which “proper” means “totally” or “completely,” dates from the mid-15th century. It was recorded in a Scottish poem composed in 1458—“propir plesand of prent” (“proper pleasant of appearance”).

However, the “proper” that we associate with good manners and correct social behavior wasn’t recorded until the early 18th century. The OED defines this sense of the word as “conforming to recognized social standards or etiquette; decent, decorous, respectable, seemly.”

Here’s an example of the usage by Jonathan Swift: “That won’t be proper; you know, To-morrow’s Sunday.” (From A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, 1738. The reference is to spending a Sunday evening promenading “on the Mall.”)

This sense of “proper” wasn’t specifically used to describe people until the early 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“We dined at a tavern—La, what do I say? … a Restaurateur’s, dear; Where your properest ladies go dine every day.” (From Thomas Moore’s verse novel The Fudge Family in Paris, 1818.)

As we wrote in a 2017 post, the adjective “proper” (like “galore”) sometimes follows the noun it modifies. “Proper” precedes the noun when it means correct (“proper grammar”) or decorous (“proper behavior”), but follows when it refers to a specific place (“the city proper”).

We can’t leave “proper” without paying a little tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.

More than 50 years ago, “proper” took an interesting turn. In African-American usage, it morphed into the plural noun “propers,” a slang term defined in the OED as “due respect, acknowledgement, or esteem.” And Aretha made the term famous.

in her 1967 hit recording of the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Aretha immortalized the word when she sang, “All I’m askin’ in return, honey, is to give me my propers when you get home.”

As William Safire wrote in The New York Times on July 28, 2002: “Her use of propers (which many heard as profits) in the lyric was her own, not in the words originally written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965.”

In Safire’s On Language column, Aretha confirmed her use of the word, as well as its meaning: “I do say propers. … I got it from the Detroit street. It was common street slang in the 1960s. The persons saying it has a sexual connotation couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘My propers’ means ‘mutual respect.’ ”

As of this writing, the OED hasn’t yet cited Aretha’s use of the term. The dictionary’s earliest citation for “propers” is from the Chicago Daily Defender (Jan. 7, 1971): “A level of existence which affords each black man his propers—dignity, pride … and the ability to govern his destiny.”

The dictionary’s next example appeared in the Dec. 4, 1981, New York Times: “The least they could have done was give me my propers.” The speaker quoted was Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, who said he was “robbed” when his heavyweight boxing match with Joe Frazier was called a draw after 10 rounds.

This use of “propers” was later shortened to “props,” defined in the OED as “due respect; approval, compliments, esteem.” (We briefly mentioned “props” in a 2010 post we wrote about popular terms originating in Black English.)

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a profile of the rap singer Roxanne Shante: “I was one of the first female rappers, but I’ve always gotten my props” (Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1990).

In fact, some commentators have speculated that rap and hip-hop performers first shortened “propers” to “props” in street slang. That seems likely, though 30 years later, “props” has gone mainstream.

The word is found in all the standard American dictionaries (and most of the British ones), though it’s still labeled “slang” or “informal.”

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