“A proper …”

Adjectival phrase. It does not indicate “characterized by propriety” (as in proper behavior) but rather fits this subsidiary OED definition of proper: “Strictly or accurately so called; in the strict use of the word; genuine, real.” The OED has surprisingly few citations, the first notable one coming from Ann Thwaite’s 1984 biography of Edmund Gosse:  “He had worked with magnifying slides but he had never had a proper microscope.” Three years later, more to the point of Britishisms, came a book called A Proper Tea: An English Collection of Recipes.

Help me out here. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something very British about thinking about or referring to this quality. Americans don’t generally care about whether a particular thing satisfies all the attributes of its category, only whether or not it works or is a good buy. They didn’t used to, that is. Now they are all over “a proper.”

Our distant ancestors probably did not have a proper breakfast when they woke up in their caves, so they gorged whenever they made a kill. (Marian Burros, New York Times, December 18, 2002)/Now that Anderson Cooper has come out of the closet about his admiration for Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, it’s only fitting that they go out on a proper date. (TVGuide.com, September 15, 2011)

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21 responses to ““A proper …”

  1. I grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, and “a proper xxx” in the meaning of “real, genuine” was all over the place then, in speech as well as in print. I’m surprised the first citation was as late as 1984. Mrs Freedman (my biology tutor in the 1970s) was using “a proper microscope” (actually!) and “a proper’ whatever all the time. Our nearby fast-food Wimpy was also the only restaurant with a “proper table service.” I don’t know – couldn’t have been that late.

  2. The British also use proper in an ironic way, “She’s a proper little madam.” of a somewhat irritatingly prissy and froward young girl;

    “You’ve got us into a proper mess.”

  3. This use of proper in the sense of “real” has been around in my AmE for a quite a while, but I think in most cases it still smacks of proper BrE. If I were to say “I had a proper breakfast,” that would be the default phrase. I would more likely say “I had a real breakfast” (as opposed to eating a cold piece of pizza or two Twinkies). We use it, but not as much.

  4. Just back from Cornwall, UK, where local St. Austell brewery makes a cask ale named “Proper Job”, in reference to a particularly pronounced hops flavour. As in “well done”….

    • “Proper Job” is an expression used frequently in Cornwall, to the point of sounding self-consciously Cornish. As used it doesn’t seem to relate to anything that might be considered a “job”, nor even the English phrase “good job”. A lavish meal might be described as a “Proper Job”. The St. Austell beer is indeed a “Proper Job” last time I tried it.

      • Martin James

        i heard that expression used by a woman (East End of London, 1970s) who had been badly beaten up by her normally absent husband, a violent gangster. Her fear was the he would return and “do a proper job”. She meant he might come back and kill her.

  5. Living in the UK here – people do indeed sometimes say ‘proper’ to mean real, authentic etc. but when talking about tea I think the normal usage would be a ‘proper cup of tea’.

    However, I have heard ‘proper tea’ before as part of the punchline to an old joke in the labour movement, a play on Proudhon’s phrase: ‘Proper tea is theft’…

  6. I moved from the US to the UK two years ago, and we joke in my family that the British are obsessed with the adjective “proper.” It’s surprisingly easy to use and always relevant (perhaps especially with school-aged children).

  7. While traveling in Indonesia some years ago, I met a British woman and her teen-aged niece. We got to talking about lodgings and so on, and the niece, referring to a hotel they’d stayed at that offered only squat toilets, complained, “And it didn’t even have a proper loo!” I immediately adopted the phrase as my own.

  8. It does seem to get used in an ever growing range of situations with its meaning becoming more and more vague here in the UK. You sometimes hear it used very casually, simply for emphasis, almost instead of “very”. I’ve heard people talk about having been “proper drunk” or describe a “properly hot” day.

    • That’s not recent, at least not in Yorkshire. I remember the expression “proper poorly” being used in the 1960s. It meant ill, and more ill than just “poorly”, which might be a cold or something. If you were “proper poorly”, it was more serious than that, and the doctor would have to be consulted.

  9. My Dad used to say the tongue twister ‘A proper cup of coffee from a proper copper-bottomed popping coffee pot’ when he put on the coffee perculator. I reckon that’s a pretty good illustration of UK use of the word ‘proper’.

  10. It may also be used as a substitute for “very good” or “cool” these days eg “that film was proper!”.

    • Mention of the word “right” solves a conundrum of how to raise the query with Ben as to whether the interrogatory “right?” inserted at the end of every spoken sentence and, frequently, at the end of almost every clause or phrase has caught on Stateside. Upward inflection necessary to substitute for invisible question mark – rhetorical, as no answer is usually insert-able!

      I work in a small office, right?, with a colleague who has this oral tic, right?. It’s driving me bonkers, right? Even though I quietly echo every “right?”, whether direct or on the phone, right?, she still dosen’t (qv) take the hint, right? Please give me an answer before I commit a vicious crime, right?, even though I’m reasonably certain (dead sure), right?, that no jury would convict, right?

  11. Sometimes the word “right” is used as an intensifer, although I’ve only heard it here in Aus used when referring to things gone wrong:
    “That was a right proper cock-up!”

    • “Right” is also used instead of proper, in this sense of “veritable”. “That was a right cock-up!

    • That’s also common, and certainly not new, in Yorkshire, pronounced “reet”. Old men at Headingly used to tell me around 1961 how Arthur Clues “were a reet good laiker” (a very good player), whereas these guys nowadays were rubbish. This was, of course, the “good old days” romantic exaggeration of the old which I now strive to avoid.

  12. Brits would also use the word decent, instead of proper, in this sense of real or genuine. “They couldn’t even serve a decent cup of tea!”

    Sometimes, there’s an element of sarcasm and snobbishness. “Why don’t you get yourself a proper car?” would most likely be used to refer to a vehicle that is certainly a car, but the speaker is insinuating that the car in question is so inferior in some respect that it should not be regarded as meeting an acceptable standard (for instance, due to poor acceleration).

    • I suggest “decent” is more expressive of a scale of quality. A decent cup of tea is of at least acceptable standard, perhaps better. “Proper”, or its implied negation, indicates a sharper division between what is is right or not right, genuine or fake. Camomile “tea” is not proper tea because it is not actually tea at all, but an infusion of a different plant. MDF is not proper wood, but a cheap substitute. Undoing a screw with a table knife will probably make a mess of the head. You need a proper screwdriver….etc.

  13. I would disagree with the idea that Americans “don’t generally care about whether a particular thing satisfies all the attributes of its category”: we do, indeed remark about whether something is “the genuine article”, the real McCoy”, and so on. We just don’t really use “proper” to do so.

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