The pronoun strip

Today’s Calvin and Hobbes is a replay of a strip from 2/24/86:

I remember this strip (with its play on two senses of pro) with great fondness, and I was sure it had been posted (possibly by me) on Language Log or this blog, but an hour’s searching found nothing, so I’m posting it here.

On the prefix pro– of pronoun, from Michael Quinion’s affixes site:

Latin pro, forward, in front of, on behalf of, instead of, on account of.

In a few words it has the sense of something acting as a substitute or deputy: proconsul (Latin pro consule, (one acting) for the consul), a governor of a province in ancient Rome, having much of the authority of a consul; pro-vice-chancellor, an assistant or deputy vice-chancellor of a university; procaine, a synthetic compound used as a local anaesthetic, especially in dentistry, named because it was a substitute for cocaine.

In pronoun, the idea (which goes back to grammars of the Classical languages) is of a pronoun as “standing for” a noun and so allowing a speaker or writer to avoid repeating that noun — a notion that isn’t crazy, but is very far from an accurate or useful definition of pronoun in a great many ways.

A somewhat improved definition, from

any member of a small class of words found in many languages that are used as replacements or substitutes for [in other dictionaries: “are used instead of”, “stand for”] nouns and noun phrases [the addition of “and noun phrases” is relatively modern – in fact, the first cite for noun phrase in OED3 (Dec. 2003) is from 1884], and that have very general reference, as I, you, he, this, who, what.

NOAD2 now offers a definition that is very far from traditional grammar, notably because it’s cast in terms of reference:

a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this).

So much for the prefix pro- in pronoun. On to the informal clipping pro. From NOAD2:

noun   a professional, especially in sports: a tennis pro.

adjective [well, modifier]   (of a person or an event) professional: a pro golfer.

The noun has an extended use referring to someone who is highly competent or very talented in some activity: He’s a pro at rap / Instagram / fellatio / backhanded compliments / striking conversations up / etc. (all attested).

Then there’s another informal clipping, from prostitute. Usually used of women, but there are of course male prostitutes, occasionally called male pros, but not (so far as I can tell) just pros. (Conversely, female pro for a female prostitute is also very rare; it sounds redundant to many people.)

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