"a conceited, narrow-minded pragmatical person; a dull, precise person; one who cultivates or affects propriety and offends or bores others," 1753, originally in reference to theological scruples (1704), a word of unknown origin.
It could be related to earlier appearances of the same word meaning "a dandy, coxcomb, fop" (1670s), "thief" (c. 1600; in forms prigger, prigman recorded from 1560s). Century Dictionary speculates the modern word is "perhaps a later application (of the "thief" sense) in the general sense, among "the profession," of 'a smart fellow.' " Also compare thieves' cant prig "a tinker" (1560s). In Middle English a prig was a kind of small nail used in roofing or tiling (14c.), perhaps from prick.
A p[rig] is wise beyond his years in all the things that do not matter. A p. cracks nuts with a steam hammer: that is, calls in the first principles of morality to decide whether he may, or must, do something of as little importance as drinking a glass of beer. On the whole, one may, perhaps, say that all his different characteristics come from the combination, in varying proportions, of three things—the desire to do his duty, the belief that he knows better than other people, & blindness to the difference in value between different things. [quoted in Fowler, 1926, who writes that it can be found in "an anonymous volume of essays"]
1530s, "subdivision of an act of a play," also "stage-setting," from French scène (14c.), from Latin scaena, scena "scene, stage of a theater," from Greek skēnē "wooden stage for actors," also "that which is represented on stage," originally "tent or booth," which is related to skia "shadow, shade," via the notion of "something that gives shade" (see Ascians).
According to Beekes' sources, the Greek word "originally denoted any light construction of cloth hung between tree branches in order to provide shadow, under which one could shelter, sleep, celebrate festivities, etc."
A theatrical word; the wider senses come from the notion of the painted drops and hangings on stage as the "setting" for the action. From "stage setting" the sense extended to "material apparatus of a theatrical stage, part of a theater in which the acting is done" (1540s), which led to "setting of any artistic work, place in which the action of a literary work is supposed to occur" and the general (non-literary) sense of "place where anything is done or takes place" (both by 1590s).
Hence the sense in reference to a (specified) activity and its realm or sphere (1931, as in the poetry scene) and U.S. slang sense of "setting or milieu or situation for a specific group or activity," attested from 1951 in Beat jargon.
Meaning "any exhibition, display, or demonstration of strong feeling," especially "stormy encounter between two or more persons," is attested by 1761. By 1650s as "a view presented to the mind or eye."
Behind the scenes "having knowledge of affairs not apparent to the public" (1748) is an image from the theater, "amid actors and stage machinery" (back of the visible stage and out of sight of the audience), which is attested from 1660s. Scene of the crime is attested by 1843. To make a scene "make a noisy or otherwise unpleasant demonstration" is by 1831.
The word was in Middle English in the Latin form, scena, "structure on a stage for dramatic recitations" (late 14c.).
Middle English setten, from Old English settan (transitive) "cause to sit; make or cause to rest as on a seat; cause to be put, placed, or seated;" also "put in a definite place," also "arrange, fix adjust; fix or appoint (a time) for some affair or transaction," and "cause (thoughts, affections) to dwell on."
This is from Proto-Germanic *(bi)satejanan "to cause to sit, set" (source also of Old Norse setja, Swedish sätta, Old Saxon settian, Old Frisian setta, Dutch zetten, German setzen, Gothic satjan), causative form of PIE *sod-, a variant of the root *sed- (1) "to sit." Also see set (n.2). It has been confused with sit (v.) at least since early 14c.
The intransitive sense of "be seated" is from c. 1200; that of "sink down, descend, decline toward and pass below the horizon" (of the sun, moon, or stars) is by mid-13c., perhaps from similar use of the cognates in Scandinavian languages; figurative use of this is from c. 1600.
Many uses are highly idiomatic, the verb, like put, its nearest equivalent, and do, make, get, etc., having become of almost universal application, and taking its distinctive color from the context. [Century Dictionary]
The sense of "make or cause to do, act, or be; start, bring (something) to a certain state" (on fire, in order, etc.) and that of "mount a gemstone" are attested by mid-13c. That of "determine upon, resolve" is from c. 1300; hence be set against "resisting" (mid-14c.).
The sense of "make a table ready for a meal" is from late 14c.; that of "regulate or adjust by a standard" (of a clock, etc.) is from late 14c. In printing, "to place (types) in the proper order for reading; put into type," 1520s. From c. 1500 as "put words to music." From 1570s as "put (a broken or dislocated bone) in position." In cookery, plastering, etc., "become firm or solid in consistency" by 1736.
To set (one's) heart on (something) is from c. 1300 as "love, be devoted to;" c. 1400 as "have a desire for." To set (one's) mind is from mid-15c.; transitive set (one's mind) to "determine to accomplish" is from late 15c. To set (something) on "incite to attack" (c. 1300) originally was in reference to hounds and game. To set an example is mid-14c. (set (v.) in the sense of "present" is from late Old English). The notion of "fix the value of" is behind old phrases such as set at naught "regard as nothing."
To set out is from c. 1300 as "display (for sale);" to set up shop "commence doing business" is from c. 1400.
c. 1300, "to make, with an edged tool or instrument, an incision in; make incisions for the purpose of dividing into two or more parts; remove by means of a cutting instrument;" of an implement, "have a cutting edge," according to Middle English Compendium from a presumed Old English *cyttan, "since ME has the normal regional variants of the vowel." Others suggest a possible Scandinavian etymology from North Germanic *kut- (source also of Swedish dialectal kuta "to cut," kuta "knife," Old Norse kuti "knife"), or that it is from Old French couteau "knife."
From early 14c. as "to make or fashion by cutting or carving." From c. 1400 as "to intersect or cross." From early 15c. as "abridge or shorten by omitting a part."
Meaning "to wound the sensibilities of" is from 1580s (to cut the heart in the same sense is attested from early 14c.). Sense of "sever connection or relations with" is from 1630s.
Meaning "to be absent without excuse" is British university slang from 1794. Colloquial or slang sense of "move off with directness and rapidity" is from 1580s. Meaning "divide (a deck of cards) at random into parts before the deal" to prevent cheating is from 1530s.
Meaning "to dilute, adulterate" (liquor, etc.) is by 1930. Colloquial sense of "to divide or share" is by 1928, perhaps an image from meat-carving at table. As a director's call to halt recording or performing, by 1931 (in an article about Pete, the bulldog with the black-ringed eye in the Hal Roach studios shorts, who was said to know the word). The sense of "perform, execute" (c. 1600) is in cut capers "frisk about;" cut a dash "make a display."
To cut down is from late 14c. as "to fell;" by 1821 as "to slay" (as with a sword); 1857 as "to curtail." To cut (someone or something) down to size is from 1821 as "reduce to suitable dimensions;" the figurative sense, "reduce to the proper level of importance," is by 1927.
To cut in "enter suddenly and unceremoniously" is from 1610s; sense of "suddenly join in conversation, interrupt" is by 1830. To cut up "cut in pieces" is from 1570s. To cut back is from 1871 as "prune by cutting off shoots," 1913 in cinematography, "return to a previous scene by repeating a part of it," 1943 as "reduce, decrease" (of expenditures, etc.). To cut (something) short "abridge, curtail, interrupt" is from 1540s.
In nautical use to cut a feather (1620s) is to move so fast as to make water foam under the bow. To cut and run (1704) also is originally nautical, "cut cable and set sail immediately," as in an emergency, hence, generally, "to make off suddenly."
To cut the teeth "have the teeth grow through the gums" as an infant is from 1670s. To cut both ways in the figurative sense of "have a good and bad effect" is from c. 1600. To cut loose "set (something) free" is by 1828; intransitive sense "begin to act freely" is by 1909.
Cut it out "remove (something) by or as if by cutting" yielded a figurative use in the command cut it out! "Stop! That's enough!" by 1933. The evolution seems to have begun earlier. A piece attributed to the Chicago Live Stock World that made the rounds in trade publications 1901-02 begins:
When you get 'hot' about something and vow you are going to rip something or somebody up the back—cut it out.
If you feel disposed to try the plan of building yourself up by tearing some one else down—cut it out.
Playing on both senses, it ends with "Should you, after reading this preachy stuff, fear you might forget some of the good advice—cut it out."