The Grammarphobia Blog

Priming the pump

Q: During Pat’s appearance on WNYC last month, someone said the sense of “primer” as a first coat of paint probably comes from the primary sense of the adjective “prime.” I think it’s derived from the preparatory sense of the verb “prime” (as in “to prime the pump”).

A: You’re right. The word “primer” (the kind you get at Home Depot, not at a bookstore) is indeed all about preparation.

On the air last month, Pat, Leonard Lopate, and a listener were discussing the two different words spelled “primer,” a subject we’ve written about before on our blog.

As you know, the word that rhymes with “trimmer” is an instructional book. The one that rhymes with “timer” is a first coat of paint.

Inspired by your question, we’ve decided to give the etymology of that second one a closer look.

This “primer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is apparently derived from the verb “prime,” meaning “to cover (wood, canvas, metal, etc.) with a preparatory coat of paint, size, etc., esp. to prevent the absorption of subsequent layers of paint.”

Those two words, the noun “primer” and the verb “prime,” were first recorded in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, another word, “priming” (defined as “the coating of wood, canvas, metal, etc., with primer, in preparation for painting”), happened to make its way into writing before the others, and was first recorded in the early 15th century.

So, not surprisingly, painters were priming with primers long before the word “primer” itself actually found its way into print.

Etymologists aren’t sure precisely how the verb “prime” came into English. The source, according to the OED, is either the adjective “prime” (first, foremost) or its earlier forms in Middle French (prime) or classical Latin (primus).

But the notion of preparing is perhaps buried somewhere in the word’s etymology.

The OED suggests a comparison with a post-classical Latin verb, primare, which meant “to prepare”—specifically, to prepare a surface for gilding. This Latin word appears in British sources in the early 14th century, the dictionary adds.

At any rate, the underlying idea is that “priming is usually preliminary to another operation (such as applying subsequent layers of paint, firing a gun, etc.),” Oxford explains.

This idea of a preliminary step is evident in many uses of the verb “prime.” Since the early 16th century, to “prime” something has meant to fill, charge, or load it.

This sense of the word has proved useful over the centuries. People have spoken about priming a firearm (that is, preparing it for firing by placing gunpowder in the touch-pan); priming a pump (by pouring water into it); priming a boiler; priming someone with drink; even priming the nostrils with snuff.

For an example of that last usage, here’s an OED citation from the satirist Henry Neville’s Newes From the New Exchange: Or, the Commonwealth of Ladies (1650): “She that with pure Tobacco will not prime Her Nose, can be no Lady of the time.”

Check out our books about the English language