Q: I came across another editing miss at the NY Times. A few weeks before this month’s mayoral election, Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, was described as “the prohibitive favorite.” I can’t imagine what “prohibitive” means here. Perhaps “presumptive” was intended.
A: Although “prohibitive” usually refers to something that prohibits or that costs too much, the adjective has a third sense in American English, where it’s also used to describe an overwhelming favorite in politics, sports, business, and so on.
Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, three of the five American dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary.com) say “prohibitive” may refer to someone or something with a near-certain chance of winning.
Is the usage legit? We think so, since the three US dictionaries treat it as standard English. (So far, all five British and two American dictionaries list only the older and more common meanings of the word.)
The wording of the “prohibitive” entry in American Heritage suggests that the overwhelming sense may have evolved in a roundabout way from the prohibiting and costly senses:
“1. Prohibiting; forbidding: took prohibitive measures. 2. So high or burdensome as to discourage purchase or use: prohibitive prices. 3. So likely to win as to discourage competition: the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.”
As far as we can tell, the overwhelming sense began appearing in American sportswriting in the late 19th century. The earliest examples we’ve found are from newspaper reports on horse races:
“Lucky Baldwin’s Los Angeles won the rich Pocahontas Stakes with some ease by half a length from Pee Weep. Los Angeles was a prohibitive favorite, and all the betting was on the place 5 to 1 against Pee Weep” (The Sun, New York, Aug. 26, 1888).
This example showed up a couple of months later: “In the next race, Banner Bearer was a prohibitive favorite, as he only had Haggin’s Prose as a competitor” (St. Paul Daily Globe, Oct. 11, 1888).
The usage increased sharply in the second half of the 20th century, though it seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books. Here are some recent examples:
“With a prohibitive favorite at No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, the real betting intrigue starts after Cade Cunningham” (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 2021).
“The winner of the Democratic primary will be a prohibitive favorite to win, all else held equal” (Boston.com, Jan. 24, 2018).
“The Wisconsin native came in as a prohibitive favorite and showed why, dusting the 25-car field in the $6,000-to-win event” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 22, 2021).
“On the sitcom side, ‘Ted Lasso’ is considered the prohibitive [Emmy] favorite among fellow Outstanding Comedy Series nominees” (Yahoo News, Sept. 19, 2021).
“If Vegas posted odds on the next winner of the Kennedys’ Profiles in Courage award, [Gen. Mark] Milley would be a prohibitive favorite” (Boston Herald, Sept. 16, 2021).
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include this sense of “prohibitive.” And it isn’t discussed in any of the usage manuals we’ve checked.
When the adjective showed up in Middle English in the early 15th century, it referred to something that prevents, forbids, restricts, and so on, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest examples use the term to describe medical preventatives.
A treatise on surgery, for example, says Hippocrates counsels that using three bandages to bind a fracture is “prohibitif or defensyf,” preventing movement and strengthening the area (Grande Chirurgie, an anonymous early 15th-century translation of Chirurgia Magna, 1363, a Latin work by the French physician Guy de Chauliac).
Another medical work cited by the OED says the herb rue is “prohibityue of cursez of humours [discharge of pus]” (Treatises of Fistula in Ano, circa 1425, by the English surgeon John Arderne). “Fistula in ano” is an old term for a painful lump between the spine and anus, caused by long periods on horseback. Today the ailment, now called a pilonidal cyst, is more likely to affect truck drivers than horseback riders.
In the early 19th century, “prohibitive” took on a new sense, one the OED describes as the most common now—too costly to pay, buy, or use. The dictionary’s first two citations refer to taxes:
“Hence the embargo, the Non-Intercourse Act, and the prohibitive duties” (The Times, London, Dec. 20, 1811) … “A tax whose effect will be prohibitive” (The American, Philadelphia, June 5, 1886).
The dictionary’s latest example for the costly sense of the adjective is from the Ottawa Citizen (March 13, 2005): “Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can’t tune out the guilt.”