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First things

First thing this morning, I opened up The Baltimore Sun to find on the obituary page a headline identifying Michael Mariano Sabino as a “premiere distance runner.” So it’s going to be that kind of week.

A premiere (n.) is an initial public performance. The word as a verb means to present such a performance. The word comes from the Latin primus, or first. So does premier (adj.), which means most important, principal or foremost. As a noun, it is an equivalent term (for which headline writers are grateful) for prime minister.

Words from the same root branch into different paths, and the precise writer or editor learns to distinguish.

Principal (adj.) as a synonym for premier comes from the Latin principalis, which itself derives from princeps, or leader, prince, emperor. As a noun, a principal is a leader is the first among equals; the principal of a school was originally one of the teachers chosen to perform the administrative duties.

Principle (n.), or basic truth, rule, standard, etc., also comes froom the Latin princeps but arrives in English through a slightly different route, the Latin principium mutating into the Old French principe.

Primary (adj.), another word for principal or foremost, also comes from primus, as you probably suspected. So does prima donna, first lady, the leading female soloist in an opera company. (The secondary meaning fo a temperamental person rose inevitably from the first.)

And this initial post of the week also owes something to Latin, initium, or beginning. From that root we get initials, the first letters of words, and initiative, a beginning. This is why the beloved political term new initiative is redundant, unless it occurs in a context that contrasts the current initiative with a previous one.

Alpha, for foremost or highest ranked, we get from the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the word alphabet itself coming from alpha and beta, the first two letters, to stand for the whole set of letters in the language.

And here is today’s omega.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:40 AM | | Comments (4)


I wonder how much of that sort of thing can be attributed not to sloppy typing but to a general ignorance of language.

It would seem to behoove a writer, especially in English to have at least a working knowledge of all of its roots; German, French and Latin. I have often doubted the effectiveness of "journalism" as a course of study. I am in favor of a more traditional liberal arts education that stresses worldliness, writing and speaking skills in lieu of trade related studies that can and should be learned on the job.

Whether "premier" is equivalent to "prime minister" depends on which country you're talking about. In Australia for example, "prime minister" means the head of the federal government whereas "premier" means the head of a state government. The terms are never interchanged.

"It would seem to behoove a writer, especially in English to have at least a working knowledge of all of its roots; German, French and Latin. ... I am in favor of a more traditional liberal arts education... ."

Being something of a poster child for the breadth possible in a liberal arts education, and having received an excellent education in part because of that breadth, I would certainly agree that it is of great value. I would hesitate, however, in going so far as to say that English-language writers should have a working knowledge of German, French and Latin. Having a passable grasp of French and some knowledge of Latin, as well as basic Norwegian and Danish, (distant English cousins, but still recognizable as relations), I certainly can see many connections between the languages. However, it is relatively clear that such knowledge does not make me a skilled writer. At times it even confuses the matter. (It took me an entire year after coming home from France to relearn that we do not traduce things in English, we translate them.) Moreover, I have seen enough writing from well-educated college students to know that the first challenge is often helping them to a working knowledge of English.

And on a related if tangential note to this discussion: When Mary Elizabeth Garrett and her acquaintances offered to provide the funds to found the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, they stipulated that all students admitted to the school must have a reading knowledge of French and German, I imagine because those were significant languages of science at the time. They also stipulated that all students must have a bachelor’s degree (one of the first, if not the first medical school in the U.S. to have such a requirement). Though this second criterion is still in place, the first has gone the way of ether anesthesia, and I would argue it is for the best.

One additional point, which perhaps you, Bryan, were approaching with your comment: it can certainly be argued that the breadth of subjects to which one is exposed in a liberal arts education gives one a cultural literacy that can then be drawn upon in writing (or editing, or reading). You would be more likely to know that E. coli should be italicized if you had taken biology, that “crescendo” refers to the process of increasing rather than the final peak if you were able to read music, that the average is not always the mean if someone had inculcated you in the basic details of statistics, that a “premiere” is a first performance if you had actually participated in one. I don’t deny that knowledge of French and Latin increases my understanding of my own language, and thus – in theory – my skill at manipulating it. But it is the cultural literacy I have gained from my studies that makes the greater contribution.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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