The Grammarphobia Blog

A pronouncing primer

Q: I pronounce “primer,” the textbook, to rhyme with “trimmer.” But people I otherwise admire pronounce it to rhyme with “timer.” May I harbor ill will against them? Or are they simply using an acceptable alternate pronunciation?

A: The word for the elementary textbook was pronounced with a short “i” (rhyming with “trimmer”) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century.

Americans still pronounce it that way. But in the late 19th century, the British began pronouncing it with a long “i” to rhyme with “timer” and that’s now the usual pronunciation in the UK, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes that the long “i” pronunciation for the textbook “is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.” (In 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones published the first edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary, which has remained in print in various editions.)

We’ve checked the pronunciation of “primer” (used in the textbook sense) in six standard dictionaries. The three British references list it with a long “i” while the three American sources list it with a short “i.”

So which pronunciation is correct? It depends on which side of the pond you call home.

But English speakers on both sides pronounce “primer” with a long “i” (as in “timer”) when it’s used in other senses (such as an undercoat of paint or a cap used to ignite an explosive). We ran a post in 2012 about the use of “primer” in painting.

English adopted “primer” in its learning sense from primarium, medieval Latin for a prayer book. In classical Latin, primarius was an adjective meaning primary.

Such devotional books were often used to teach children to read, which soon led to the use of “primer” for a beginning (or first) school book, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest OED example of the word used in its prayer-book sense is a 1378 reference to one red “primer” in M. T. Löfvenberg’s Contributions to Middle English Lexicography and Etymology (1946).

The earliest example for the textbook sense is from “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): This litel child his litel book lernynge, / As he sat in the scole at his prymer.”

An interesting aside: Daniel Jones, whose pronouncing dictionary we cited earlier, may have been the inspiration for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Henry Sweet, a mentor of Jones, has also been mentioned.

[Note: This item updates and expands on an April 4, 2008, post about the pronunciation of “primer.”]

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