"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"]
Old English catt (c. 700) "domestic cat," from West Germanic (c. 400-450), from Proto-Germanic *kattuz (source also of Old Frisian katte, Old Norse köttr, Dutch kat, Old High German kazza, German Katze), from Late Latin cattus.
The near-universal European word now, it appeared in Europe as Latin catta (Martial, c. 75 C.E.), Byzantine Greek katta (c. 350) and was in general use on the continent by c. 700, replacing Latin feles. Probably ultimately Afro-Asiatic (compare Nubian kadis, Berber kadiska, both meaning "cat"). Arabic qitt "tomcat" may be from the same source. Cats were domestic in Egypt from c. 2000 B.C.E., but not a familiar household animal to classical Greeks and Romans. The nine lives have been proverbial at least since 1560s.
The Late Latin word also is the source of Old Irish and Gaelic cat, Welsh kath, Breton kaz, Italian gatto, Spanish gato, French chat (12c.). Independent, but ultimately from the same source are words in the Slavic group: Old Church Slavonic kotuka, kotel'a, Bulgarian kotka, Russian koška, Polish kot, along with Lithuanian katė and non-Indo-European Finnish katti, which is from Lithuanian.
Extended to lions, tigers, etc. c. 1600. As a term of contempt for a woman, from early 13c. Slang sense of "prostitute" is from at least c. 1400. Slang sense of "fellow, guy," is from 1920, originally in African-American vernacular; narrower sense of "jazz enthusiast" is recorded from 1931.
Cat's paw (1769, but cat's foot in the same sense, 1590s) refers to the old folk tale in which the monkey tricks the cat into pawing chestnuts from a fire; the monkey gets the roasted nuts, the cat gets a burnt paw. Cat burglar is from 1907, so called for stealth. Cat-witted "small-minded, obstinate, and spiteful" (1670s) deserved to survive. For Cat's meow, cat's pajamas, see bee's knees. For let the cat out of the bag, see bag (n.).
Old English æppel "apple; any kind of fruit; fruit in general," from Proto-Germanic *ap(a)laz (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch appel, Old Norse eple, Old High German apful, German Apfel), from PIE *ab(e)l- "apple" (source also of Gaulish avallo "fruit;" Old Irish ubull, Lithuanian obuolys, Old Church Slavonic jabloko "apple"), but the exact relation and original sense of these is uncertain (compare melon).
A roted eppel amang þe holen, makeþ rotie þe yzounde. ["Ayenbite of Inwit," 1340]
In Middle English and as late as 17c., it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts (such as Old English fingeræppla "dates," literally "finger-apples;" Middle English appel of paradis "banana," c. 1400). Hence its grafting onto the unnamed "fruit of the forbidden tree" in Genesis. Cucumbers, in one Old English work, are eorþæppla, literally "earth-apples" (compare French pomme de terre "potato," literally "earth-apple;" see also melon). French pomme is from Latin pomum "apple; fruit" (see Pomona).
As far as the forbidden fruit is concerned, again, the Quran does not mention it explicitly, but according to traditional commentaries it was not an apple, as believed by Christians and Jews, but wheat. [Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity," 2002]
Apple of Discord (c. 1400) was thrown into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus by Eris (goddess of chaos and discord), who had not been invited, and inscribed kallisti "To the Prettiest One." Paris, elected to choose which goddess should have it, gave it to Aphrodite, offending Hera and Athene, with consequences of the Trojan War, etc.
Apple of one's eye (Old English), symbol of what is most cherished, was the pupil, supposed to be a globular solid body. Apple-polisher "one who curries favor" first attested 1928 in student slang. The image in the phrase upset the apple cart "spoil the undertaking" is attested from 1788. Road-apple "horse dropping" is from 1942.
1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), negar, negur, from French nègre, from Spanish negro (see Negro). From the earliest usage it was "the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks" [cited in Gowers, 1965, probably Harold R. Isaacs]. But as black African inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person.
Nigger is more English in form than negro, and was formerly and to some extent still is used without intent; but its use is now confined to colloquial or illiterate speech, in which it generally conveys more or less of contempt. [Century Dictionary, 1895]
"You're a fool nigger, and the worst day's work Pa ever did was to buy you," said Scarlett slowly. ... There, she thought, I've said "nigger" and Mother wouldn't like that at all. [Margaret Mitchell, "Gone With the Wind," 1936]
It was also applied by English colonists to the dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia.
One hears the contemptuous term "nigger" still applied to natives by those who should know better, especially by youths just come from home, and somewhat intoxicated by sudden power. [Samuel Smith, "India Revisited," in "The Contemporary Review," July 1886]
The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of "soul" or "style," is attested first in the U.S. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. The variant nigga, attested from 1827 (as niggah from 1835), is found usually in situations where blacks use the word. Also compare nigra.
[F]or when a town black has called a country black (equally black with himself) a "dam black plantation nigga," you may know that he has been terribly provoked, and has now ejected his last drop of gall in that most contemptuous epithet. [The Pamphleteer, vol. XXVIII, No. LVI, 1827]
Used in combinations (such as nigger-brown) since 1840s for various dark brown or black hues or objects; euphemistic substitutions (such as Zulu) began to appear in these senses c. 1917. Brazil nuts were called nigger toes by 1896. Nigger stick "prison guard's baton" is attested by 1971. To work like a nigger "work very hard" is by 1836.
Slang phrase nigger in the woodpile "a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way" [OED] is attested by 1800; Thornton's "American Glossary" (1912) defines it as "A mode of accounting for the disappearance of fuel," hence "an unsolved mystery." Nigger heaven "the top gallery in a (segregated) theater" first attested 1878 in reference to Troy, N.Y. Nigger-shooter "slingshot" is by 1876.