The Grammarphobia Blog

Is a clunker used or pre-owned?

Q: It seems to me that illiterate used-car salesmen have introduced the term “pre-owned” into the language to avoid advertising what they actually sell: USED CARS! This is driving me nuts. Please tell me that it’s incorrect and that you’ll help me stamp it out.

A: We don’t like this euphemism either, and we don’t use it ourselves, but the usage has been around for dozens of years and it’s in many standard dictionaries, including the two we consult the most.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “preowned” (it doesn’t use the hyphen) as “previously owned or used; secondhand: a preowned car.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the hyphenated version as “secondhand, used.”

All six American or British dictionaries we checked list the term, with or without the hyphen, as standard English.

The usage first showed up in the 1930s, according to published examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a May 27, 1934, advertisement in the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “Factory branch close out sale—floor sample and pre-owned washers.”

We’re generally more amused than irritated by euphemisms. We’re sorry that this one is driving you nuts. We suspect, though, that it’s here to stay. All you can do to stamp out a usage that bugs you is avoid using it yourself.

If you’re bothered by a “pre-owned” car, you’ll probably be bothered even more by a similar usage— a “pre-need” funeral—that is, a prepaid one. We had a brief post about it a few years ago.

The first citation for this usage in the OED is from a March 5, 1945, ad in the Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Who will pay the Funeral Bill? … Ask us today for details of our pre-need plan. No obligation.”

By the way, the term “euphemism,” which entered English in the mid-1600s, is derived from the Greek compound euphemismos (speaking with good words), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says the term “originally denoted the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

He notes that the opposite of a “euphemism” is a “dysphemism” (the use of a more offensive word), which he describes as a late 19th-century coinage based on the Greek prefix dus- (bad, difficult) instead of the Greek prefix eu- (good).

Although the term “dysphemism” is a relative latecomer, the usage itself has been around a lot longer.

Shakespeare, for example, uses it in All’s Well That Ends Well (circa 1605), when Mariana describes the advances of Count Rousillon as “engines of lust.”

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