‘Prim and Proper’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on January 13, 2023

Did someone call you ‘prim and proper,’ and you’re wondering what it means?

In short, ‘prim and proper’ means “prudish” or “straight-laced.” “Prudish” is an adjective that describes someone that is easily shocked by matters relating to nudity or sex, while “straight-laced” describes a person that has very strict moral attitudes.

What Does 'Prim and Proper' Mean?

‘Prim and proper’ means “straight-laced” or “prudish.” A person who is described as ‘prim and proper’ is typically someone that has very morally conservative, traditional behaviors and beliefs. This type of individual might be easily shocked by anything even remotely rude and always correctly behaved.

The definition of the word ‘prim’ is “respectable and stiffly formal; showing or feeling disapproval of anything that is regarded as improper.” The American English definition of the word ‘proper’ has several definitions, but the applicable meaning is “respectable, especially excessively so; respecting or according to recognized conventions or social standards.”

For example, let’s say that your grandmother is in town and your best friend is inviting you to a rock concert. When you tell your friend that you can’t go because your grandmother is visiting, your friend might suggest that it would be fun to bring her along. If your grandmother is very traditional and would definitely not enjoy such a raucous event, you might say, “thanks, but I don’t think that’s a good idea; she’s very ‘prim and proper.’”

This phrase can also be used in an insulting, mocking, or playful way, depending on the context and the tone. For example, if a person was afraid to go swimming because they didn’t want other people to see them in their swimsuit, a friend might say, “stop being so ‘prim and proper’ and jump in the pool!”

Where Does 'Prim and Proper' Come From?

The word prim seems to date back as far as the 1680s, with the meaning “to assume a formal, precise demeanor.” The meaning of “stiffly precise in manners or speech, formal” is dated to 1709. The precise origin is unknown for the word ‘prim,’ but it is thought it might come from the French word prim, which means “small, delicate, think.”

The word is also attested as a noun from around the year 1700, which meant “precise, formal, or stuck-up person.”

‘Proper,’ on the other hand, dates to around 1300 with the meaning “excellent, commendable; apt, adapted to some purpose, fit.”

From the Google Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘prim and proper’ has followed an exponential growth in popularity, first appearing around the 1840s and becoming increasingly popular in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, it has started to decline in usage since about 2017.

Examples of 'Prim and Proper' In Sentences

How would you use ‘prim and proper’ in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “Come on, Tommy, spill the tea. What’s it like to date someone that is so prim and proper?”
  • “She is so soft-spoken that I always assumed she was incredibly prim and proper. Once I started talking to her, though, I quickly learned she swears like a sailor!”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with being traditional, but I really feel like you dodged a bullet when Rick broke up with you. He was so prim and proper it was impossible to have any fun around him.”
  • “Would you mind checking in with my grandfather every once and a while during the wedding? He is very prim and proper, and I’m worried he will be uncomfortable the entire time.”
  • “I cannot feel comfortable in her house no matter how hard I try. I feel like if I sneeze wrong, she’ll give me a sour look. I’ve never met a more prim and proper person.”
  • “I wish he would relax sometimes. Being around someone that is so prim and proper honestly gets exhausting.”

Other Ways to Say 'Prim and Proper'

What are some other ways to convey a similar meaning as ‘prim and proper’? Here are some synonymous and related words and phrases:

  • Victorian
  • Prissy
  • Strait-laced
  • Stuck-up
  • Prudish
  • Puritanical
  • Formal
  • Stuffy
  • Bluenosed

Are you working on expanding your vocabulary by learning English idioms, phrases, and proverbs? If so, make sure you check out our Idioms blog!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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