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In "The Blue Scarab" in Dr. Thorndyke's Case-Book by R. Austin Freeman, Mr. Blowgrave, whose deed-box was stolen, was talking to Dr. Thorndyke:

"The story concerns my great-grandfather Silas Blowgrave, and his doings during the war with France. It seems that he commanded a privateer of which he and his brother Reuben were the joint owners, and that in the course of their last cruise they acquired a very remarkable and valuable collection of jewels. Goodness knows how they got them; not very honestly, I suspect, for they appear to have been a pair of precious rascals. Something has been said about the loot from a South American church or cathedral, but there is really nothing known about the affair.

I've never met the word "precious" with a bad adjective, does it mean "great" or something like that?

  • 1
    maybe you've come across "precious little", as in "very little" – PatrickT Aug 10 at 6:34
  • It's a rather endearing phrase nowadays. – marcellothearcane Aug 11 at 7:18
  • Precious is sometimes used to stand for 'precoscious' or synonyms inferring 'cupidity'. – Charles M Saunders Sep 7 at 17:28
9

precious, adj. 4. colloquial. a. As an intensifier: complete, utter, out-and-out.

Oxford English Dictionary

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  • 4
    Any info on the usage in this context over time? To me it feels quite old-fashioned now, in that sense as an adjective. (A bit more common as an adverb, in phrases like "precious few".) – Rand al'Thor Aug 9 at 18:47
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The Thorndyke stories are set in the early 20th century (contemporaneous with the author).

At this time, "precious" was used as a magnifier as described in the earlier answer (which I lack the rep to add context in comments to, hence the separate answer).

Additional negative meanings can be the current pretentious/fussy ("the lyrics were rather precious for my taste") or dismissive ("here's your precious ring!"), and an earlier 18th century meaning of "worthless"; none of which seem relevant here.

Here are a couple of examples of the utter/complete/etc usage in newspaper articles, within about 40 years or so earlier - when Freeman was in his mid-twenties.

A precious scoundrel.

A precious villain.

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