You’ve seen this word before. Many times. You have prior knowledge of it prior to seeing it here. You may even have seen it a few too many times – it sits like a brier in laboured formalese, all those documents by assorted office staff who issue stiff directives and think before is too informal somehow. How could a good old English word be as good as this Latin one? Formalese hews, as though driven by an anxiety disorder, to prepositional phrases rather than the nice, direct verb phrases: Please remove shoes prior to entering rather than Please take off your shoes before you come in. It sallies forth with a breastplate – nay, an escutcheon – of nouns and Latin-derived words, not to mention telegraphic omission of articles.
Not that prior to is the only place you’ll see prior. It shows up in a variety of collocations: prior knowledge, prior research, prior experience, prior approval… These do make nice, compact phrasings. They also have the arched tone of authority, the sound of police-speak – prior convictions – or the starchy formalism of someone writing for people he or she wishes to speak authoritatively to. Prior is inescapable superior. It has the loftiness of prayer, but with the beginnings of rotation of an eye orbit.
A prior, noun, is a superior officer of a religious order. This is from the same origin: Latin prior, meaning (as the OED has it) “in front, previous, former, earlier, elder, superior, more important”. It is related to the prefix pre and comes from the same root, way back in Indo-European, as English fore – as in foreman and before. So our synonyms have not only prior acquaintance but prior identity.
But it is from the noun prior that I get my favourite prior: Maddy Prior, the folk singer. (I’m OK with Richard Pryor, too; there are various other Priors and Pryors that I’m less well acquainted with.) If you have no prior acquaintance with her music (as a soloist, with June Tabor, and with Steeleye Span), here are a few songs to take your mind off monkish formalese: