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The Lexicon - Prink

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Word: Prink

Definition: (v) primp

Origin: prob. alternative of prank - to show oneself off, to dress or adorn gaily or showily [prob. from D pronken to strut; akin to MHG gebrunkel glitter of metal]

Source: "Consolation to His Wife" by Plutarch, collected in Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay

I was told by those who were present and found your conduct remarkable that you did not put on mourning nor induce any uncomeliness or unseemliness in yourself or in your servants, that there was no preparation for extravagant solemnities at the grave, but that everything was done decently and quietly with only the family in attendance. For my part I was not surprised, for you would never prink for the theater or processions, but even for pleasurable outings thought that extravagance was useless and maintained your sensible moderation even among people who looked askance at it. It is not only in bacchic celebrations that a virtuous woman must remain uncorrupted, but in sorrow too she must remember that excess is to be avoided and that transports of emotion require to be controlled; it is not her love, as the many think, that she must fight against, but the incontinence of her soul.

Let's pause for just a moment to address three things about this word:

  1. Who knew that prank had a secondary meaning associated with strutting and glitter?

  2. Urban Dictionary indicates this word may also now refer to the portmanteau of pre and drink, such as what one might do in one's apartment to calm one's anxiety before going to meet up with friends for the first time since a dreadful pandemic forced us all to stay home.

  3. Urban Dictionary also suggests this word can be a mild derogative similar to (but "cleaner" than) prick.

With that established, I think we can all (except, I guess, Phillip Lopate) agree that Plutarch was a first-class prink always prinking himself before the mirror of his small fame, leading me to want to day-prink just to get through this essay. Lopate quotes classicist and translator Moses Hadas on Plutarch's "unexampled reverence for womanhood, a touching tenderness for little children . . . his humanitarianism." Lopate piles on the praise, claiming that this essay, as translated by Hadas, "displays all of Plutarch's sympathetic tendencies" and is "often considered the most attractive example of the [consolation] form, because of its genuineness of feeling and touching directness."

This piece appears to be a letter written by Plutarch to his wife upon learning of the death of their young daughter. It is possible that the version that survived was revised by Plutarch for a public audience due to its didactic tone of moral instruction though there is no evidence of an earlier version. Readers, including Lopate, often refer to the intimacy achieved by Plutarch, achieved by his willingness to balance that public instruction with personal details and anecdotes from his life. There are also those who commend this letter as one that shows him to be generous and loving, especially toward his wife, the supposed recipient of this letter.

I cannot agree. He may have been all those things, but I do not see how this letter provides proof of it. Imagine, please, that your toddler has died while your partner is away. Imagine that you have managed the household in his absence, made all the arrangements for the funeral and other public observations while dealing with your own considerable grief upon this most terrible loss. Imagine, too, that you've perviously lost not one but TWO children, and that your partner was also absent on the occasion of at least one of them. Imagine sending him news of your child's death and then hearing nothing in response for an unreasonable amount of time. Your absent partner neither returns home nor writes in response to this loss as you continue to manage the aftermath.

Now, imagine you finally receive a letter from him, which opens with the excuse that the messenger "apparently missed me" and the assumption that the funeral has already taken place and then offers this warning:

if I find your grief exceeds due measure I shall be more greatly distressed than by the misfortune itself.

There's nothing you can do to change the response you have had to your child's death. This is not instruction to you for how to proceed. This is the promise of judgement upon your actions; this is a threat. Did you catch it? If you haven't handled yourself just exactly as I expect, I will be more upset by that than by the death of our child.

You can argue Stoicism to me until you are blue in the face. You can explain to me the philosophical underpinnings or demonstrate the countless ways grief displays were overblown during Plutarch's time. You can argue that Plutarch's wife agreed with these views, even led the way on them, and I will still think this is a reprehensible response to loss.

Scholars will argue that what Plutarch does here so well is demonstrate all the ways Plutarch and his wife are special, exceptional, worthy to be held up as exemplars in grief as in happiness. And that he does. He celebrates his wife's great response to grief and contrasts others who have not met their tragic moments as admirably. He has heard of how quietly she has performed her grief, aligning her status as a "virtuous woman" with her ability to control her emotion. He urges her to "take no account of the tears and lamentations of visitors who follow the tiresome custom of paying condolence calls" and to remember that all those people envy her. He commends her in all these things, but only because she has - he assumes - behaved in a way he would agree with. His praise of her is really praise of her adherence to his views. He spends all this time setting her apart, but it always feels to me that it is himself he's elevating.

And then, in the final paragraphs, he shifts to the abstract, discussing the soul and its varying states determined by how long it had been "caged" in the body before closing with a more general exhortation regarding traditional laws and usages. Plutarch shifts to the 1st person plural, calling upon a collective we and referring to our laws before ending this letter -- a letter to his grieving wife -- with this:

And now inasmuch as it is harder to reject our traditions than to trust them, let us comport ourselves outwardly as the laws prescribe, and let our inward conduct be even more untainted and pure and sensible.

Imagine knowing that your partner has exploited the death of your child to grow his influence in the public forum. Imagine reading this letter and feeling the eyes of all the world reading over your shoulder and knowing it is really to them he is writing. Imagine.

If prink means primp, and primp means to conscientiously prepare oneself for the public eye, I am comfortable making the argument that this whole letter is an encouragement to prink, and all these centuries later, I just hope that poor woman didn't live her whole life in fear of her husband. I hope she got to grieve, to tear her hair, to scream into the void, to wear sackcloth and ashes, or to rent her garments in the Public Square as she cried out to the universe, Why? Why? Why must my child be gone?


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