The etymological march of ‘pride’
June marks many LGBTQ pride celebrations across the globe. But how did the word pride evolve from a condemnation of self-importance to an expression of self-empowerment? Let’s take a look at the history of pride.
A ‘proud’ past
The word pride has a ‘proud’ past, as it were, in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests it—as the Old English pryte—in the late tenth-century Catholic Homilies of Ælfric of Eynsham, an English abbot who also penned the Lives of the Saints. Then, as it still does now, pride referred to excessive self-regard, formed from the adjective proud, or prut in Old English.
The Old English prut, in turn, is an early borrowing of the Old French prod, among other forms, which had a positive meaning of ‘valiant’ or ‘noble’. The French prod also appears in prud’homme, a ‘man of valor’, historically a knight summoned to serve on juries and likely source of the English prude. Prowess, originally an ‘act of bravery’, comes from the French pruesce, whose root is also prod.
Etymologists ultimately derive French’s prod from the Latin prodesse, ‘to be useful or advantageous’. Latin’s prodesse joins pro-, ‘in front’ or ‘before’, and esse, ‘to be’, with such positioning apparently connoting benefit or profit. Over the centuries, something ‘useful’ became associated with something ‘good’, ‘good’ with ‘valiant’, and ‘valiant’ with ‘haughty’, hence the English proud.
From sin to celebration
Pride has named one—and often considered the worst—of the seven deadly sins since the early 1200s. According to the OED, lions were used to depict the sin of pride in the Middle Ages, which might explain why pride came to serve as the collective noun for a group of lions.
Pride didn’t stay negative in English for long, though. By Middle English, pride was also naming a healthy and worthy self-esteem, which the OED cites in the early 1300s verse history, the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester. And it’s this sense of pride, fast-forwarding to the 20th century, that we use for LGBTQ pride.
The term gay pride—or the dignity and solidarity a person feels when publicly acknowledging and expressing their homosexuality—is first attested in 1970 and is often credited to Craig Schoonmaker. Schoonmaker, a gay rights activist, helped organize a march one year after the Stonewall riots, sparked after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, on June 28, 1969, which is why many pride celebrations fall in June. As he explained to Helen Zaltzman on her Allusionist podcast in 2015:
We had a committee to commemorate the Stonewall riots. We were going to create a number of events the same weekend as the march to bring in people out of town, and wanted to unite the events under a label. First thought was ‘Gay Power’. I didn’t like that, so proposed ‘gay pride’. There’s very little chance for people in the world to have power. People did not have power then; even now, we only have some. But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.
The Christopher Street Liberation Day, as the demonstration was then called, not only marked the earliest known use of gay pride but is also considered the first gay pride march. And it did help produce change, slowly but surely, for the status and treatment of the LGBTQ community—and for the word pride itself, now cemented as a powerful term of affirmation and identity among LGBTQ persons.