Posted by: Jack Henry | June 27, 2017

Editor’s Corner: I feel pretty, oh so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and…

Dear Editrix,

I cannot find background on a certain usage of “pretty.” How did it become an adverb? Such as: The next town is pretty far away.


Pretty in Pink

Dear Pink,

What an interesting question! My first thought was to check with my favorite etymology site, the Online Etymology Dictionary. Here’s what I found there about the adjective pretty, and how it slid into use as an adverb:

pretty (adj)

Old English prættig (West Saxon), pretti (Kentish), *prettig (Mercian) "cunning, skillful, artful, wily, astute," from prætt, *prett "a trick, wile, craft," from Proto-Germanic *pratt- (source also of Old Norse prettr "a trick," prettugr "tricky;" Frisian pret, Middle Dutch perte, Dutch pret "trick, joke," Dutch prettig "sportive, funny," Flemish pertig "brisk, clever"), of unknown origin.

Meaning "not a few, considerable" is from late 15c. With a sense of "moderately," qualifying adjectives and adverbs, since 1560s. Pretty please as an emphatic plea is attested from 1902. A pretty penny "lot of money" is first recorded 1768.

I thought this was interesting, partly because its original meaning wasn’t “good-looking” or anything even close. The other part I find surprising is that we’ve been using it to mean “moderately” since the 1560s.

I continued digging in Merriam-Webster to see what they said about the adverb pretty. M-W doesn’t provide much more history, in fact, the examples are very recent. I’ve included a few of them here.

pretty (adverb)

1a : in some degree or extent : moderately, fairly

< … who seems like a pretty nice guy through most of the play … — Mimi Kramer, The New Yorker, 10 Aug. 1987>

< … has more five-star hotels than anywhere else in Australia, and most of these can be found pretty close to the business center of Perth. — Gillian Rowe, Business Travel International, September 1990>

b : to a great extent or degree : quite, very

<A lot of blood had formed in a puddle under him, and he looked pretty bad. His broken nose had swelled up like a doughball between his eyes. — Maggie Davis, The Far Side of Home, 1963>

< … both are gender- and age-specific modes of musical expression about sex, self-doubt and self-pity. Both tend to be pretty awful. — Josh Tyrangiel, Time, 26 May 2003>

Kara Church

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