"formal, stiffly precise in speech or manners," 1709, the sole surviving sense of a word attested first as a verb (1680s) "to assume a formal, precise demeanor," a cant word of uncertain origin, perhaps from French prim "thin, small, delicate" (Old French prim "fine, delicate"), from Latin primus "finest," literally "first" (see prime (adj.)).
Later, "deck out with great nicety, dress to effect, form or dispose with affected preciseness" (1721). It also is attested as a noun from 1700, "formal, precise, or stuck-up person." Related: Primly; primness.
1801, "dress or deck (oneself) in a formal and affected manner," probably an extension of prim (q.v.) in its verbal "dress up" sense; compare Scottish primpit "delicate, nice" (c. 1739). Related: Primped; primping.
"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"]
"prissy person, prim girl, effeminate man," 1914, Southern U.S. colloquial, a back-formation from prissy (q.v.).
"to smile in an affected and silly way," 1560s, perhaps from a Scandinavian source (compare dialectal Danish semper "affected, coy, prudish") or Middle Dutch zimperlijk "affected, coy, prim," all of unknown origin. Related: Simpered; simpering. As a noun, "an affected smile," 1590s, from the verb.
Le propre de la pruderie, c'est de mettre d'autant plus de factionnaires que la forteresse est moins menacée.[Victor Hugo, "Les Misérables," 1862]
Mrs. Prim: Prudery! What! do they invent new words as well as new fashions? Ah! poor fantastic age, I pity thee. [Susanna Centlivre, "A Bold Stroke For a Wife," 1791]
Some 20c. writers in English used an extended form prudibundery, in many cases likely for contemptuous emphasis, from French prudibonderie "prudery."
1704, "woman who affects or upholds modesty in conduct and thought in a degree considered rigid and excessive," from French prude "excessively prim or demure woman," first recorded in Molière.
Perhaps it is a false back-formation or an ellipsis of preudefemme "a discreet, modest woman," from Old French prodefame "noblewoman, gentlewoman; wife, consort," the fem. equivalent of prudhomme "a brave man" (see proud (adj.)). Or perhaps the French noun is from the French adjective prude "prudish," from Old French prude, prode, preude, which however is attested only in a laudatory sense, "good, virtuous, modest," a feminine form of the adjective preux. Also occasionally as an adjective in English 18c.; the application of the noun to a man was still considered rare at the end of 19c.
"earliest canonical hour of the day" (6 a.m.), from Old English prim and Old French prime and directly from Medieval Latin prima "the first service," from Latin prima hora "the first hour" (of the Roman day), from Latin primus "first, the first, first part" (see prime (adj.)). (In classical Latin, the noun uses of the adjective meant "first part, beginning; leading place.")
By extension, "the first division of the day" 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. (early 13c.). The sense of "beginning of a period or course of events" is from late 14c. From the notion of "the period or condition of greatest vigor in life" (by 1530s) comes the specific sense "springtime of human life" (often meaning ages roughly 21 to 28) is from 1590s. Also from 1590s as "that which is best in quality, highest or most perfect state of anything." As "a prime number," by 1530s.
"too precise, over-particular," 1895, probably Southern U.S. dialect, first attested in Joel Chandler Harris, perhaps an alteration of precise (q.v.), or a merger of prim and sissy [OED]. Related: Prissily; prissiness.
["]Then Mrs Blue Hen rumpled up her feathers and got mad with herself, and went to setting. I reckon that's what you call it. I've heard some call it 'setting' and others 'sitting.' Once, when I was courting, I spoke of a sitting hen, but the young lady said I was too prissy for anything."
"What is prissy?" asked Sweetest Susan.
Mr. Rabbit shut his eyes and scratched his ear. Then he shook his head slowly.
"It's nothing but a girl's word," remarked Mrs. Meadows by way of explanation. "It means that somebody's trying hard to show off."
"I reckon that's so," said Mr. Rabbit, opening his eyes. He appeared to be much relieved.
[Joel Chandler Harris, "Mr. Rabbit at Home"]