In English, preen is commonly a verb. Originally used to refer to birds cleaning and smoothing their feathers with their beaks, it then came to be used of humans who are excessively concerned with their appearance and who spend hours titivating themselves and admiring their reflection in mirrors and shop window.
Then it developed the meaning of to display excessive pleasure and pride over an achievement of some kind, much to the annoyance of everyone else
Scots also has a word preen. Although it does exist as a verb, it is more commonly used as a noun meaning the equivalent of the English word pin, as used in sewing. The main meaning of the Scots verb is to fasten something such as the hem of a dress with pins or to sew something up.
Scots preen is derived from Old English preon, meaning a pin or a brooch. The English preen may have some connection with preon also, but it is generally thought to be a form of the verb prune, as in to prune a bush, which has its origins in Old French proignier.
A preen scart means literally a scratch from a pin, and very painful this can be. However, the noun preen is used in various figurative ways. If you are sittin on preens you are in a distinctly agitated and nervous state, the equivalent of English being on tenterhooks. You may be in such a state if you are awaiting exam results or praying that the sale of your house has gone through.
Preen is used to indicate something of very little value or consequence, although when pins were first introduced they were very expensive. To emphasise this lack of value, preen is sometimes combined with heid, a preen-heid being a pinhead. So you might be hoarding what you think is a valuable vase, only to discover that “it’s no worth a preen-heid”. Or you might say that someone “disnae care a preen-heid about someone”, indicating a person’s total lack of affection or concern for someone else.
Preen-heid has formed the adjective preen-heidit. This is mostly used of people and it is certainly not a compliment. If you describe someone as preen-heidit you mean that they are stupid and completely lacking in intelligence. Of course, they may think the same of you.
A more obscure compound of preen is preen-tae. This does not mean, as you might expect, a toe that resembles a pin, perhaps because it is very thin. No, a preen-tae, which has the alternative form preen-til, is something or someone that is attached to something or someone else. In buildings it can be a lean-to or an extension.
As far as people are concerned, a preen-tae can be someone who is the constant companion of someone else, someone who seems joined at the hip to another. Preen-tae can have clandestine overtones because it is also used to describe a paramour or mistress. This is hardly a glamorous description, even less so than kept woman.
The verb preen has some interesting figurative connections. To preen back yir lugs is the direct equivalent of English pin back your ears and means to listen carefully and attentively. However, the Scots expression can also mean to get ready to eat a hearty meal. I am not sure what preparations are required for that.
If you preen something to your sleeve you make a mental note that this is something that you have to remember. Such mental notes do not work for everyone. They are probably better to tie a knot in their handkerchief, write something on their hand or make a note on their phone or laptop.
Preen has the alternative form prin, although the pronunciation is the same. I recently came across a very descriptive expression using prin. The expression was a stiff prin, meaning a person of importance and power in charge of something. I think that is one well worth reviving.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.