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verb (used with object)
  1. (of animals, especially birds) to trim or dress (feathers, fur, etc.) with the beak or tongue: The peacock preened itself on the lawn.
  2. to dress (oneself) carefully or smartly; primp: The king preened himself in his elaborate ceremonial robes.
  3. to pride (oneself) on an achievement, personal quality, etc.: He preened himself on having been graduated with honors.
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verb (used without object)
  1. to make oneself appear striking or smart in dress or appearance: No amount of careful preening will compensate for poor posture.
  2. to be exultant or proud.
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Origin of preen1

1480–90; late Middle English prene, variant of Middle English prunen, proynen (see prune3), perhaps by association with prenen, to stab, pierce (v. use, now dial., of prene preen2), from the pricking action of a bird's beak in preening
Related formspreen·er, nounun·preened, adjective


noun Chiefly British Dialect.
  1. a pin or brooch.
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Origin of preen2

before 1000; Middle English prene, Old English prēon a pin; cognate with Old Norse prjōnn pin; akin to Dutch priem, German Pfreim awl
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

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Historical Examples

British Dictionary definitions for preen


  1. (of birds) to maintain (feathers) in a healthy condition by arrangement, cleaning, and other contact with the bill
  2. to dress or array (oneself) carefully; primp
  3. (usually foll by on) to pride or congratulate (oneself)
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Derived Formspreener, noun

Word Origin

C14 preinen, probably from prunen to prune ³, influenced by prenen to prick, pin (see preen ²); suggestive of the pricking movement of the bird's beak


  1. Scot a pin, esp a decorative one
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Word Origin

Old English prēon a pin; related to Middle High German pfrieme awl, Dutch priem bodkin
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for preen


"to trim, to dress up," late 14c., perhaps a variation of Middle English proynen, proinen "trim the feather with the beak" (see prune (v.)); or perhaps from Old French poroindre "anoint before," and Old French proignier "round off, prune." Middle English prene (from Old English preon, a general Germanic word) meant "to pin," and probably influenced the form of this word. Watkins, however, connects it with Latin unguere "to smear, anoint."

Because of the popularity of falconry, bird activities formerly were more closely observed and words for them were more precise in English than today.

Youre hawke proynith and not pikith and she prenyth not bot whan she begynnyth at hir leggys, and fetcheth moystour like oyle at hir taill. ["Book of St. Albans," 1486]
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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper