In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros

Becoming a Woman

Our era celebrates the sexy woman; little positive attention, if any is paid the prude.

Her proud lineage, however, calls for a fresh look. An offspring of the Latin prodesse, "to be useful or advantageous," she moved into Old French as prod, "good," "gallant," or "brave," evolving over time into le prud'homme, the "honest and upright man" and la prudefemme, the "strong and modest woman."

The language couldn't long tolerate a prud woman. In a short time, her modesty and strength gave way to "excessive propriety and priggishness." Ostensibly genderless, the prude today stands bereft of her original heritage, reduced to an "uptight woman" — victim of the same sexism in language that transformed the good housewife into a hussy.

It is difficult for women to maintain their pride in the face of sexism in language. She can, however, take comfort and draw strength from the word's original meaning and by also being prudent. Being prudent, though, has nothing to do with being a prude. She became prudent by shortening the present participle providens, "foreseeing" into prudens, "wise," or "discreet" — something of which both men and women may feel proud.