Today’s lesson in semantics addresses the case of a young Australian student who called a police officer a “prick” during an episode of verbal fisticuffs at a Sydney railway station last year. (Hey, we’ve all been there, right?)
The cops took the kid to court, but the “offensive language” case was ultimately dismissed by the judge, who said:
“I consider the word prick is of a less derogatory nature than other words and it is in common usage in this country,” Robbie Williams, the Waverley Local Court magistrate, told the court on Monday.
And, in fact, a check of our trusty Merriam-Webster confirms the student’s common usage of “prick” as the 5th variant:
Main Entry: prick
Etymology: Middle English prikke, from Old English prica; akin to Middle Dutch pric prick
Date: before 12th century
1: a mark or shallow hole made by a pointed instrument
2 a: a pointed instrument or weapon b: a sharp projecting organ or part
3: an instance of pricking or the sensation of being pricked: as a : a nagging or sharp feeling of remorse, regret, or sorrow b : a slight sharply localized discomfort 4 usually vulgar: penis
5 usually vulgar: a spiteful or contemptible man often having some authority
It’s not even “always vulgar”! Unless, of course, the student meant usage #2a, which is truly offensive.
The sensitively semantic state police protested that they “shouldn’t be punching bags for society, nor should they be open to this sort of abuse.” And then they stamped their little feet.
Let this not, however, give people license to go around saying “prick” all willy-nilly. Only say it if you mean it, you know? And use good judgment. Take the advice of George Carlin, who knew from pricks:
“It’s okay if it happens to your finger. Yes, you can prick your finger, but don’t finger your prick. No, no.”
(Except during National Masturbation Month, during which all bets are fucking off.)