A bit over two years ago, my wife and I went to a Leonard Cohen concert. The various band members walked onto the stage, one at a time, got set up. Then some guy came bounding onto the stage. We thought it was one of the techies bringing on something for someone. Then he took the microphone and started to sing.
Leonard Cohen, 78 at the time, had just jogged onto the stage like a 24-year-old.
Throughout the concert, he was here, he was there; now he was on his knees, now back up, now on his knees again. Not quite a sprinter, but sprightly. A spring in his step.
Leonard Cohen, after 8 decades of life, is pretty spry.
Last week we saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, live on stage. Angela Lansbury is 89½ years old. Angela Lansbury was up pacing around, dancing in a trance, flopping onto a sofa.
I described her on the phone to my parents as “pretty spry.”
Obviously spry is a relative word. A person in their prime has to be frankly gymnastic to earn the term. A nonagenarian can earn it by dancing. And not landing sprawled as a result.
Spry showed up in English by the later 1700s, meaning (as it still does) “Active, nimble, smart, brisk; full of health and spirits” (Oxford). It has also sometimes been used to mean ‘spruce’ (as in spruced up). But it’s not clear just where it came from. The best guesses trace it to sprightly or to an Old Norse word meaning ‘brisk, active’. But there’s no clear trail. Somehow it just sprang into the language. And sounded right.
Right? Let’s see common words that start with spr: sprain, sprat, sprawl, spray, spread, spree, sprig, spright, spring, springe, sprinkle, sprint, sprit, sprite, spritz, sprout, spruce, sprue, spruik. Most of them have to do with spreading or distributing motion, or with things that move quickly or grow forth. There’s an accumulated association of that general sense with this sound, even though the words aren’t all related. It’s what is sometimes called a phonaestheme.
And the vowel, the diphthong /aɪ/ (spelled y)? That’s not as concentrated, to be sure. But there can be a sense of movement away: fly, try, sigh, die, hie. There’s also the sound of wry embedded in spry. And of course there’s the unfinished sprightly and sprite, and there’s pry and almost prize and prime. Associations between words and sounds may in general be arbitrary, but people automatically look for patterns and make associations on the basis of resemblance. Word meanings can shift because a word sounds like another word. Language is sometimes a nimble thing.
Nimble? That’s a rough synonym for spry. But tell me what you feel the difference to be. I find that nimble is like agile with a particular sense of quick and sure feet and ability to negotiate tricky situations (it commonly shows up with fingers and feet), while spry focuses more on the athletic vigor and youthful sinew, still with a sense of indefeasibility. And it’s commonly used to refer to older people – the most frequent modifier for it (by far) is still. It’s relatively more easily attainable in greater age, and it connotes retention of a youthful vigour.
Come to think of it, it sounds like a word Sean Connery might use, doesn’t it? He’s still spry, too, you know… at 84 years old.