So what’s the link between an irritating medical condition, pornographic materials, and the English satirist Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)? If the answer eludes you, read on.
In that famous, pot-boiling bodice-ripper, Langfrank’s Science of cirurgie (surgery), written in 1400, reference is made to “pruritus,” which causes and “icchinge” and “reednes” – roughly translated as itching and redness. The word pruritus stems from the Latin prurire, which means “to itch.” By the 15th century, it had taken on the metaphorical meaning of an intellectual itch, or a mental itch. In 1653, Jeromy Taylor wrote in his A course of sermons for all the Sundaies of the year, “If there be a pruritus or itch of talking, let it be in matters of Religion.”
The word is synonymous with prurigo, defined by the OED as;
An itching; spec. in Path., a diseased condition of the skin attended by a violent and chronic itching, and characterized by the presence of flat slightly red papules, and a thickening of the part affected.
The word also comes from the prurire root with the addition of the -igo suffix. -igo, along with -ago and -ugo, is used to indicate a disease. According to an article by clinical pharmacologist Jeff Aronson in the British Medical Journal;
In Latin the suffix -ago, or -igo, or -ugo was often used to denote a disease, giving us albugo (a white opacification of the cornea), caligo (dim vision), impetigo, intertrigo, lentigo, porrigo (dandruff), prurigo, serpigo, tentigo (priapism), vertigo, and vitiligo, more than half of them diseases of the skin. So lumbago was a pain in the loins, or later in the middle of the back.
The word used to describe the physical sensation of itching became a metaphorical reference for “having an itching desire or curiosity, or an uneasy morbid craving.” (OED, Vol. XII, p.733). Bishop John Gauden wrote in Hieraspitses: a defence by way of apology for the ministry and ministers of the church of England (1653) said, “Politick affectations of piety, which grow as scurfe or scabs, over those prurient novelties of opinion.”
It was only a short step from there to the use of the word in a more, well, prurient manner;
Given to the indulgence of lewd ideas; impure-minded; characterized by lasciviousness of thought or mind.
Satirist Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) was the author of a number of novels, one of which being Reproof: a satire (1747), in which he penned, “Debauch’d from sense, let doubtful meanings run, The vague conundrum, and the prurient pun.” Perhaps also an early reference for that other popular vehicle of humor, the double-entendre? In a wonderfully apposite twist, Smollett was trained as a surgeon and even spent time as a ship’s surgeon on the HMS Chichester, sailed to Jamaica, and lived there for a few years. Doubtless he came across a number of cases of prurigo.
By the 18th century, prurience had come to refer primarily to this meaning, as noted by Christopher Ricks in his 1974 Keats and Embarrassment; “Prurience, pruriency, and prurient came fully into their modern meaning (from itching) in the eighteenth century.”
So onwards to 1957 and a landmark case know as Roth v. United States, where Supreme Court Justice Brennan attempted to define obscenity from a legal perspective. The specific line said that obscenity was speech that “…to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest” and which is “utterly without redeeming social importance…”
Ignoring the problems of identifying the “average person,” “community standards” and “social importance,” the word prurient itself is used in the modern sense of lewd and lascivious. Yet by 1973, the law on obscenity was amended to include a refining of the definition for prurient. In Miller v. California, Chief Justice Warren Burger offered the following:
“Appeals to the prurient interest” means that which appeals to “shameful or morbid interests” in sex, but not that which incites normal lust and includes materials designed for and primarily disseminated to a deviant sexual group (for example, sadists) which appeals to the prurient interests of that group.
Although this is the current definition – the Miller Test – there is still considerable debate about what it means. In 1984, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit defined prurience as “a shameful and morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.”
Of course, modern tabloid media often appeals to “prurient interest” and the entire MTV and VH1 networks would shut down if they had to go back to simply playing music. Most of the “reality” shows are little more than prefabricated opportunities for sexual behavior that skirts the definition of obscenity just enough to offend but not enough to claim they don’t appeal to prurience. A major feature of these shows is to watch (and the word voyeurism springs to mind here) to see who is having sex with who, and who will have the most sex with the most number of people. It’s a clever attorney who can argue that these shows have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (the SLAPS test for obscenity – if you can show you are “slapping,” you ain’t obscene!)
And during the investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, more column inches were dedicated to the use of cigars and dress stains than any actual constitutional issues. My guess is that most folks who picked up the Starr Report probably flipped to the juicy bits first – and then put it down. The online version available at the Time Magazine site even opens with the titillating WARNING: The following report contains sexually explicit language. Now if THAT isn’t prurient, what is?
Similarly, shows such as TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras with its parade of prostitots doubtless panders to the prurient interests of pedophiles but continues to be shown and defended by folks who argue that it has serious artistic merit.
And thereby hangs the problem with prurience; it is so dependent on personal perception and social mores that using the word as a legal term is hopeless.
Oh, and the English satirist Thomas Nashe? Well, back in 1589, he used the first – and perhaps only – pun based on the word prurient. In his pamphlet The Returne of the renowned Cavaliero Pasquill and his Meeting with Marforius wrote;
I frequented the Churches of the Pruritane Preachers…
Marf: I pray you, Syr, why doe you call them Pruritanes?
Pasq: They have an itch in all their eares.
The pun word, pruritan, is a hapax legomenon; a word that appears to only occur once in the English lexicon, and perhaps overdue for an outing, although it’s hard to beat H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
 Aronson, J. (2002). When I use a word: Round the back. British Medical Journal, 324(7343): 957.