A Brief History of the Word ‘Pree’

ISIS SEMAJ-HALL

On the face of it, pree is not a Caribbean word. Pree is a Jamaican word. Press play on any dancehall song and you’ll hear a boastful deejay chatting about which ‘hot gyal ah pree him’ or how ‘im a pree di money’ or how ‘im nuh pree badmind people.’ Eavesdrop on any sidewalk conversation, rum shop debate, or single-sided phone call in Kingston and you are likely to hear the word pree often followed by ‘yuh zimme?’ This is because in Jamaica, to pree is to take a long, deliberate look or a careful, focused listen. When someone says pree, it is not a request; it is a gentle command that the listener take notice of something or someone new, important, significant. Listen to a song: ‘pree dis.’ Look at a prospective lover: ‘pree dat.’ Hear this story: ‘pree wah me a seh.’ And when Jamaicans encounter an amazing new online literary magazine: ‘my dawg, yuh affi pree di ting deh’ (OK, that last one nuh set yet, but it will!)

So how did pree get to be a word with so much meaning? Pree my words as I take you through a brief history.

Over the last few months I pestered quite a few people about the roots of the word pree and in doing so I inadvertently took a ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ investigative approach to my etymological study. In my own memory, I recalled the seemingly overnight increase in pree usage in dancehall since 2005 or so. But who was the first dancehall artiste to record the word? I cannot say. In fact, no one I spoke with had any date-specific answers. Some said ‘pree is just a word we use.’ Some said ‘pree derived from the slang word prips.’ Prips – as in ‘come mek mi prips you on waah gwaan’ – is a word used in Jamaica (Kingston more specifically) – to describe the sharing of previously unknown information. One informal interviewee suggested that pree emerged ‘sometime ago’ as an elongation of the beginning sound of prips, such that prips was stretched for exaggerated effect into ‘priiiiiiiiiiiips’ then shortened to pree. I liked this suggestion. It seemed plausible, but it was just one of several proposals regarding the word’s origin. Another person proclaimed that pree simply identifies the ‘earliness’ of the information, as in: ‘when you pree, you know di ting first.’ Again, plausible. But I, like Gay Talese, the Esquire journalist who was desperate to pin down Frank Sinatra for a story, wanted more, wanted something definitive. What I was forgetting though, is that new language, like slang, usually erupts spontaneously and without the intent of being recorded on paper.

‘Pre’ – as in ‘prerequisite’/ ‘preeminent’/ or ‘premiere’ –  is defined in the English context as ‘in advance of,’ ‘prior to,’ or ‘early.’ ‘Pre’ is born from the Latin preposition ‘prae’ meaning ‘before.’ I typed pree into the Oxford English Dictionary’s search engine and to my astonishment, a full entry for the verb ‘to pree’ was displayed.  According to the OED, ‘pree’ is infrequently used in the current era but, in the English-speaking regions north of Ireland, ‘pree’ which was sometimes spelled ‘prie,’ was used in and around the year 1515 to mean ‘to prove, establish.’ Were modern-day, trend-setting, dancehall-aligned Jamaicans reinvigorating a 16th century English/Irish word?  I considered the Jamaican pronunciation of the word ‘prayer’ as ‘prior’ and inserted the word ‘pry’ into a Google search box and found this result: ‘to enquire too inquisitively into a person’s private affairs.’ It seemed that the Jamaican pree could have derived from ‘pry’ and is being pronounced ‘pree’ for the same reason that prayer is pronounced prior and violence is pronounced voilence in Jamaica: local inflection.  But still, pree has a life of its own. Whether it was born from a centuries-old past or not, pree has become a word that is used to direct one’s attention towards a matter that is of interest to the speaker.

When Derek Walcott delivered his Nobel Lecture ‘Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’ in 1992, pree is not yet en vogue, so to speak. But pree, no doubt, is what Walcott does when he takes that ‘long-drawn sigh over Felicity’ in Trinidad. Walcott did pree Felicity when he begins ‘[l]ooking around slowly, as a camera would, taking in the low blue hills over Port of Spain, the village road and houses, the warrior-archers, the god-actors and their handlers.’ Walcott is St. Lucia’s writer-poet-playwright, but he is also the Caribbean’s, and the postcolonial world’s writer-poet-playwright.

When Jamaica Kincaid’s 1985 titular character Annie John looks out at ‘various small, sticklike figures, some dressed in black, some dressed in white, bobbing up and down in the distance,’ a nuh pree she a pree funeral in those opening pages of the novel? Jamaica Kincaid is born and raised in Antigua and has for decades lived in the American state of Vermont, but Annie John still pree funeral near Fort Road in Antigua’s capital city of St. John’s.

And when the Indo-Trinidadian protagonist Mona Singh of Ramabai Espinet’s 2003 novel The Swinging Bridge is sitting on a Canadian train considering the life of the black waiter who serves her, nuh true she a pree di man? Mona wants to know more about this waiter-stranger and because they are both migrants, Mona thinks she knows something secret about him. So Mona prips di reader of what she did pree: ‘I stretched out my legs and began to look around, listening to empty snatches of conversation.’ Then she saw ‘a black waiter, exceptionally courteous and getting on in years.’ She pree him and then prips we when she makes the following supposition: ‘In the place he came from he might have been a village schoolmaster—perhaps he was in fact a village schoolmaster who had ventured forth to seek his fortune and had landed here, on the trains, the place for black men in earlier times in this country’.

Pree has a way of capturing an intent of both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader. Any English-speaker can signal the introduction to something new by saying ‘look!’ or ‘listen!’, but there is something uniquely Caribbean about the contemporary usage of pree as an attention-grabbing verb. Pree locates the user as Caribbean with an intent to share observations, provocations, and understandings of the Caribbean world.

PREE’s manifestation from idea to conversation took place on Kingstonian soil, but that accident of birth does not a Jamaican literary magazine make. It is the connection to a particular Caribbean country that gives any of us access to a broader Caribbean identity. So as a Caribbean magazine, we at PREE have created a space for anyone to pree the Caribbean, a space for anyone from the Caribbean to write and share observations, provocations, and understandings of the Caribbean world that surrounds all of us both in the region and in the diaspora.

PREE is a magazine of writing we want you to be intrigued by and to take note of. So pree di ting. Be moved by the poets within. Be stirred by the storytellers. Come back for more. And, please, mi beg yuh still, do feel free to send a note to the editors; that way we can pree you too.


Image Credit: Photo of wall art ‘Miss Fluffy’ by Leasho Johnson. Source: ap

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