Age has spirit, and it has risks. This is surely a new word – to you, as it was lately to me – and yet it is actually pulled out from Oxford’s lexical cold storage. It has spring and vigour, like a name of a cold drink for hot days, and yet it is not new, and what it names is not new. It is pristine in its glittering appearance – and in the old ‘ancient’ sense of pristine.
Prisk is a rare, archaic Scots English word formed directly from Latin priscus. It means ‘old, ancient, old-fashioned, primitive’. Oxford’s only modern citation for it is from Forked Tongue by W.N. Herbert: “Sandy Hole Gaelic’s pirn’s unspoolan i thi prisk guschet o aa thocht’s birth’s biforrows.” If that sounds to you like old-style dialect from an ancient Scotsman who is pissed as an ewt, well, me too.
But it really is such a crisp word. Can’t we keep it? We could call Angela Lansbury “pretty, prisk, and spry”; we could refer to a coelacanth as a “prisk piscis” or just a “prisk fish.” There are, it’s true, other words with much the same sense, including two more descended from priscus: priscan and priscal. But neither of those is so brisk.
And why would we think we must limit ourselves to one word for any given semantic field? English is not a programming language. English is a collector’s language. No one with the collector spirit says “I have a camera; why would I need another?” or “I have one recording of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé; aren’t they fungible?” or “I’ve tasted a red Bordeaux; aren’t they all the same?” No, no, every word, even of ostensibly the same sense, has an at least slightly different flavour. A word is a performance; a word is a craftsman’s output. You can keep collecting them, from the prisk to the praecox, words without end.