Mallet and chisel in hand, the shop teacher used a familiar word in an unfamiliar but colorful way. The students are building kalimbas – African thumb pianos – and the first step is to carve, saw, chisel or burn a design into the block of wood that serves as the instrument’s base. They draw the design with a pencil and ruler, clamp the wood in a vise and go to work. “You don’t want the wood flush with the top of the vise,” the instructor said. “You want it a little proud.”
Intuitively I knew what he meant – a sure sign of a good metaphor. A proud chest swells and a proud block of wood, not flush with the top of the vise, swells in its own way. An online glossary of woodworking terms confirmed my understanding: “To just protrude above the surface so it is sticking out a bit.” Next, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition), which gives this as the ninth of its nine definitions of “proud”:
“orig. dial. or local.`Large; projecting in any direction; of a roof: high-pitched’; also `said of a fulcrum when it is placed too near the lever end’…also techn.: slightly raised or projecting.”
The earliest citation dates from 1824 and refers to the straw protruding from the top of a haystack as “proud.” Like all the others, it’s drawn from a “nonliterary” source – no poems or novels. A 1960 reference is from Board and Table Games by R.C. Bell:
“The inlay pieces were fitted into them [recesses], leaving an excess standing proud.”
All of the cited sources in the OED appear to have been written by English authors, so I decided to call my certified American woodworking source, my brother, a picture framer for more than 35 years and recently proud owner, with a partner, of his own shop. “Yep, `standing proud,’” he said. Ken remembered Tracy Kidder used the word in House (1985) to describe nails not fully driven into wood.
The dual nature of “proud” as used colloquially – swollen with vanity versus rightly pleased with accomplishment – is reflected in my friend the shop teacher’s old-fashioned metaphorical usage. The block of wood is not square in the vise and looks ungainly, out of plumb, but to square it would be to risk splintered wood, cracked chisel blade, gashed finger. In Herakleitos and Diogenes (1979), Guy Davenport translates the Athenian slave and street philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.). Davenport calls him “a public scold, a pest, a licensed jester.” None of his work survives, only “comments as passed down through folklore to be recorded by various writers.” Among them is this:
“How proud you are of not being proud, Plato says, and I reply that there is pride and pride.”