A person who makes a showy display of good behavior, so as to lord their moral superiority over others
A thief or robber
It is usually honorable, and beneficial, for people to follow the rules - without the commonly understood body of regulations that govern society, daily life would be a stressful and dangerous mess. As good a practice as it is to follow the rules, the point of having an accepted set of them is that they are the minimum expectation of behavior, and not an extraordinary mark of adherents' moral fibers. That's why few things are more grating than when some prig tries to impress others by exhibiting the common decency we all display as a matter of course.
A prig is a person who tries to project a sense of ethical superiority by making an ostentatious or exaggerated show of charitable or compassionate deeds. Whether their actions are actually particularly generous or not, what makes a prig is that they make their gestures in a theatrical way in order to garner attention. Thus, to call one a prig is to imply that their actions are underpinned by a fundamental sense of arrogance, boastfulness, or selfishness, suggesting that they are not primarily motivated by the direct result of their moral act (i.e. doing good unto the recipient of their action).
In the British English lexicon, a prig also means a common pickpocket or thief. However, this use is antiquated and thus seldom used today.
Example: The man made a prig of himself by theatrically digging out his wallet and depositing a handful of change in the bell-ringer's bucket so every passerby could see him.
Example: Under the guise of asking for directions, the prig deftly plucked the wallet out of his target's pants pocket and made off with it in total stealth.
Example: The high school students thought their principal a bit of a prig for prohibiting certain dances at the prom.
The origin of the word prig is uncertain. In its primary (and most modern) sense, prig first appeared in English in the early 1700s in relation to points of theological belief. Prior to this, in the late 1600s, it was used to mean “dandy” or “fop” and, in the early 1600s, to mean “thief.” Prig as “thief” originally derived from the term prigger, also for “thief,” which can be traced back to the mid-1500s. Earlier than this, its origins cannot be traced.
Priggish: The adjective form of prig illustrates when something displays the qualities of insufferable moral superiority.
Example: In spite of how meager and impersonal they were, the boss made the priggish gesture of giving all his employees a $5 Starbucks gift card.
Priggishly: This adverb describes when an action is carried out in a self-righteous manner.
Example: With an exaggerated sweeping arm gesture, the indecisive customer priggishly let the man behind her step up to the counter to order.
Priggishness: This noun characterizes the quality or state of smugness attending one's dealings or behavior.
Example: Ironically, the political candidate's priggishness in describing his support of welfare seriously undermined the charitableness he hoped to project.
Priggery: Like priggishness, priggery is a noun that captures the boastful and self-congratulatory nature of someone or something (usually an action).
Example: The religious leader emphasized the importance of eschewing priggery and committing good deeds purely out of the goodness of one's heart.
From George Eliot's Middlemarch:
A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.
Here, Eliot comments that liberally sharing one's opinions unsolicited, under the guise of trying to help, is the mark of being smug, or a prig.
From Emily Dickinson’s “Snowflakes”:
I counted till they danced so
Their slippers leaped the town –
And then I took a pencil
To note the rebels down –
And then they grew so jolly
I did resign the prig –
And ten of my once stately toes
Are marshalled for a jig!
Dickinson’s poem whimsically depicts a frustrated and fascinated narrator attempting to count the falling snowflakes, falling first in a sprinkling and then in a torrent. Finally, the narrator finds herself admitting to being a stubborn disciplinarian, or a prig. Giving in to the wondrous sight and dancing along with the falling snow, the narrator self-deprecatingly regards herself as a prig to underscore the folly of counting snowflakes.
A prig is little more than a selfish pig wearing empathetic lipstick.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of prig. Did you use prig in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.