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Prime time

[An updated and expanded post about the pronunciation of “primer” appeared on Aug. 10, 2015.]

Q: An announcer on PBS recently offered a primer (the book, not the paint) as a gift for a contribution. He pronounced “primer” with a short “i” (as in “dimmer”). It sounded funny to me. I always use a long “i” (as in “climber”). Are both acceptable?

A: The “primer” that means an elementary reading book or an instructional guide rhymes with “trimmer” (short “i”). It comes from the Latin primarium, meaning a prayer book or devotional manual, and it entered English in the 14th century.

The “primer” that’s an undercoat of paint rhymes with “timer” (long “i”). It entered English in the 17th century, through the verb “prime” (16th century) and the earlier noun “priming” (15th century). We got it from the Latin primus, meaning first.

The pronunciations I’ve given are standard American usage. You’ll find them in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Although the Latin roots of each word are ultimately related, in English these are two separate and distinct words: different meanings, different pronunciations, and different dictionary entries.

Vive la différence!

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