English Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Premier’ or ‘premiere’?

Q: Is it the “premier” or “premiere” episode of a TV series? I see it both ways in print. Which would you use?

A: “Premier” can be an adjective meaning first, best, or most important, as well as a noun for the leader of a national or regional government, according to standard dictionaries.

“Premiere,” with an “e” at the end, can be a noun for the first performance of a play, movie, opera, etc., or a verb meaning to give or have a first performance.

Only three of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept the use of “premiere” as an adjective meaning first.

Despite what the majority of these dictionaries say, “premiere” is often used adjectivally to describe the first episode of a TV series.

In fact, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, indicates that “premiere episode” has increased in popularity over the last 50 years and is now significantly more common than “premier episode.” The “premiere” version is also overwhelmingly more popular in the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles since 2012 from online newspapers and magazines.

We suspect that the seven standard dictionaries that don’t include the usage will eventually add “premiere” as either an adjective or a noun used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to mean first.

Which would we use, “premier” or “premiere,” to describe the initial episode of a TV series? Neither. We’d use “first episode,” a usage that’s far more popular than either the “premier” or “premiere” versions, according to Ngram Viewer.

The adjective “first” has referred to an initial item since late Anglo-Saxon days.The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 12th-century section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that describes the consecration of St. Ethelwold in 963 as bishop of Winchester:

“Sancte Dunstan him gehalgod to biscop on þe fyrste Sunnondæg of Aduent” (“Saint Dunstan [the Archbishop of Canterbury] consecrated him bishop on the first Sunday of Advent.”

As for “premier” and “premiere,” why does English have two spellings? Perhaps because 18th-century Francophiles tried to make an already French word (premier) seem even more French by using the feminine form (première).

The first of these words to show up in English was the adjective “premier.” The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed it in the 15th century from Anglo Norman and Middle French, where the similarly spelled premier meant “first in a sequence or series.”

The OED defines the English adjective as “first in importance, rank, or position; chief, leading, foremost.” In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the adjective (here spelled “primier”) meant first in importance:

“Maisters Gower, Chauucer & Lydgate, Primier poetes of this nacion” (from The Active Policy of a Prince, a poem by George Ashby, believed written in 1470 or ’71. In the poem, Ashby offers advice to Edward, Prince of Wales).

In the 17th century, writers began using the adjective in the noun phrase “premier minister,” meaning the chief officer of an institution or the chief minister of a ruler. The earliest OED citation is from “The Kings Vows,” a 1670 poem by Andrew Marvell:

“Of my Pimp I will make my Minister Premier.” (In the poem, Charles I cheerfully recites some of his misdeeds. He was beheaded in 1649 on a charge of treason against England.)

When the noun “premier” appeared a few years later, it also referred to the chief officer of an institution or chief minister of a ruler. In the first Oxford example, it had the institutional sense:

“Mr. William Colvin late premier in the college of Edinburgh” (from a 1675 entry in a register of burials in the Greyfriars burying-ground in Edinburgh).

In the early 18th century, the noun came to mean a British prime minister or the chief minister of a self-governing British colony: “The Premier and his brother of All Souls called on me last week on their way to young Bromley’s” (from a June 23, 1726, letter by the Duke of Portland).

And in the 19th century, the term took on its wider modern sense of a prime minister of a national government or chief minister of a regional government: “Jiji Sanjo … is the son of an official who has been somewhat vaguely described as the Premier of Japan” (the Times, London, Oct. 13, 1871).

The adjective “premiere” showed up in the mid-18th century as a borrowing of première, the French feminine adjective for first. The OED says the “reason for the borrowing of the feminine form (alongside earlier premier adj.) is unclear.”

At the time, there was a vogue in London for all things French, and our guess, as we mentioned above, is that “premiere” looked Frenchier and thus tonier than “premier.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the adjective “premiere” is from The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull (1768), by William Donaldson: “The venerable dame of antiquity, who was recommended … to superintend my premiere actions, till I should grow into power to assist myself.”

In the mid-19th century, “premiere” took on the sense of “first in importance or position; foremost, leading; outstanding,” according to Oxford. The first example given is from Tom Burke of “Ours” (1844), a novel by Charles James Lever about an Irish exile who fights for France: “Ah, François, these Mamelukes were not of the ‘premiere force,’ after all. I have only been jesting all this time—see here.”

When the noun “premiere” appeared a couple of decades later (originally italicized and with a grave accent), it referred to a ballerina: “The dancer who has passed the chrysalis ballet-girl stage, and is now a full-fledged, butterfly première” (from the August 1867 issue of the Galaxy, a magazine later absorbed by the Atlantic Monthly).

The OED describes “premiere” here as a shortening of première danseuse, French for a leading female dancer, especially in a ballet company. The longer French term first appeared in English publications in the early 19th century, according to OED citations:

“The following performers have already been engaged. … For the Ballet … Madame Anatole, Premiere Danseuse at the Royal Academy of Music” (Times, London, Jan. 5, 1822). All but one of the six later citations italicize the phrase and use the accent in première.

The term “premiere” soon evolved in English to mean a first performance or showing of a play, film, musical composition, and so on: “The première of the Tzigane [a work by Maurice Ravel] was a very brilliant affair. Of course, the usual elegant audience … was in force” (from the Spirit of the Times, an American weekly, Nov. 24, 1877).

When the verb “premiere” showed up in the early 20th century, it meant  to make a first appearance in a play, film, opera, and so on. The earliest OED example refers to a first appearance in baseball: “Rogers Hornsby … premiered against the Philadelphia Nationals” (Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, April 12, 1927).

The verb soon also meant to present something for the first time. In this Oxford example, the setting of an opera has its debut: “His new setting of ‘Don Giovanni’ is to be premiered at the San Carlo of Naples (Musical Times, March 1, 1929).

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 4, 2020, after a reader of the blog called our attention to the popularity of “premiere episode” in online searches.]

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