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 short answer is that “primer,” when it means an elementary textbook, is pronounced one way in the US and another in the UK.
It 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” (rhyming 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 ten standard dictionaries, five American and five British.
Eight of them say the word has a short “i” in American English and a long “i” in British English. The other two, one published in the US and the other in the UK, give only the short “i” pronunciation, with the UK dictionary labeling the word “old-fashioned US.” [Note: We updated the dictionary findings on Jan. 21, 2022.]
So which pronunciation is correct? Apparently that depends largely on which side of the pond you call home.
However, 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 wrote 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,” recorded 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.”]