English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Priority: the highs and the lows

Q: Settle our nitpicking debate about the term “priority.” It implies importance, so is a qualifier necessary in “high priority,” and is a “low priority” even a priority?

A: Yes, something can be a “high priority” or a “low priority.” But the noun “priority” has several other meanings, which may lead to confusion and even a “nitpicking debate.” Here are the most common senses today:

(1) Something important: “Health insurance is a priority.”

(2) Something ranked in order of importance: “In Miami, flood insurance is a high priority and earthquake insurance a low priority.”

(3) The right to go before someone or something else: “Ambulances take priority over other vehicles.”

(4) The things one cares about the most: “Our children are our priorities.”

When “priority” showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s, it meant “precedence in order or rank,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED, from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte.”

That original meaning, the OED says, gradually evolved into the “right to precede others or to receive something before others.”

The first citation for this sense of “priority” is from the Aug. 19, 1802, issue of the Times (London): “We must give priority to more direct and specific topics which immediately concern ourselves.”

The dictionary says in an etymology note that “priority” is of “multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.”

Those origins include the Anglo-Norman and Middle French priorite (precedence in time, order or rank), the post-classical Latin prioritas (fact or condition of being earlier in time), and the classical Latin prior (former, previous, in front, better).

In the 20th century, the noun came to mean the “right to proceed before other traffic,” according to the OED. Although the dictionary says this usage is chiefly British, we find it common in the US too.

The first Oxford example is again from the Times (May 8, 1929): “At road junctions they favour the rule that the vehicle on the more important road has priority.”

The noun soon took on the sense of a “thing that is regarded as more important than others; something which needs special attention. Freq. in pl.

The first citation is from another issue of the Times (July 21, 1936): “The function of … deciding the main priorities in all classes of munition production should be separated from all functions connected with the problem of material and supply.”

We won’t get into the use of the term in legal writing, but we should mention that “priority” is often used attributively—that is, as an adjective—to describe someone or something that’s more important than others.

The first example in the OED is from an 1849 letter by Charles Darwin. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“If I, a PRIORITY MAN, called a species C. D., it implies that C. D. is the oldest name that I know of; but in order that you and others may judge of the propriety of that name, you must ascertain when, and by whom, the name was first coined.”

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