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February 28th, 2003


When I was in high school, I was forced… er, heavily encouraged to enroll in an American History course. Or two. My teacher almost turned it into an English course, and effectively so, because I remember something very important he told me way back when.

One of our textbooks had the word “primer” in the title. People kept pronouncing it, “pry-mer”. “Pry-mer.” “Pry-mer”. Apparently, it drove my teacher nuts; one day, he picked up the book from his desk, and held it in his big, hairy hands. His tall body nearly quivered. His greasy black hair shook, and sweat ran down his forehead. “It’s prih-mer!” he bellowed. “Pry-mer is something you put on a wall before you paint it. That’s pry-mer. This is prih-mer. Got it? Prih-mer.”

Every day after that, we knew how to get him angry fast. Pry-mer.

The thing is, ever since then I’ve been very careful to call a book prih-mer, and paint-prep stuff, pry-mer. Is this something you do? Or was he just sharing a pet peeve with his captive audien… er, class?

Posted in Miscellaneous

Katie March 25, 2007, 4:02 pm

I, too, happened upon this ping when doing more research on’s contention that there are two pronunciations (but its later (on the same page) quotation of the American Heritage which says there’s only one).

Not that I’m the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland (“Whenever I use a word, it means whatever I’d _like_ it to mean!”), but I’ve always thought the American pronunciation is dumb. Isn’t a “primer”‘s job to “prime” you to learn the material? I’m going to keep pronouncing it the British way, and hope that eventually it will take over.

(Our language is being corrupted in so many other ways — why not this one, which actually makes sense?)

Anneke May 29, 2007, 3:42 pm

I have never understood the American need to continue to mispronounce something that was obviously mispronounced at one time and it “stuck”. “Primmer” is a perfect example of this nonsensical rationalization for mispronouncing word.

The root word is “prime”. A PRIMER, as it is spelled correctly and pronounces is something which “primes”, in this case “primes” one for something. An English primer “primes” one for learning English. For some unaccountable reason, despite British English being the origin of the word, American dictionaries insist, if they even bother to note the fact, offhandedly note the “variation” British pronunciation “primer” with the long-i.

It is not Presidential “primmaries”, one does not “prim” a pump, or speak of “prim” numbers and “Prim-ministers”. The word is primer and should be pronounced “primer” with a long-i.

D. Esther August 14, 2007, 1:07 am

Doesn’t the rule regarding the single ‘m’ or double ‘m’ mean that primer should be pronounced with the long i?
If it were to be pronounced with a short i, the spelling would have to be primmer.
Or is this another of our ‘exceptional’ rules in the english language?

Mary Melnyk March 13, 2008, 4:06 am

I am watching a brain training program on P.B.S. and was getting irritated when the spokeswoman kept saying brain primer (primmer). Since I am not too smart myself and realise I don’t know much, I had to look it up and was left with an explaination but there was no pronunciation ’till I typed it and found this site.
Thank you for being here to clear that up for me or I would still be on the couch thinking idiot, it’s primer (prymer).

Mary Melnyk March 13, 2008, 4:11 am

A primer is a nucleic acid strand, or a related molecule that serves as a starting point for DNA replication. A primer is required because the enzymes that catalyze the replication of DNA (DNA polymerases) can only add new replicated DNA to an existing strand of nucleotides.

In most natural DNA replication, the ultimate primer for DNA synthesis is a short strand of RNA. This RNA is produced by primase, and is later removed and replaced with DNA by a DNA polymerase.

Bonnie September 19, 2008, 5:05 pm

So how do we change the English WORD to make it grammatically correct. Since the e comes after the ONE m the i should be a long i sound. Making it also sound like the primer paint.

If the word primer should have a soft i sound then we should change the spelling to primmer. So that AMERICANS know how to correctly pronounce the word.

George Roff January 9, 2009, 12:29 am

Read and read-both spelled the same , both have different pronunciations. This, like primer/primer are reasons for vehement feelings about our language. This is the result of a language with multiple origins. It certainly sucks, but would we rather speak German?

V Perrins September 18, 2009, 2:27 pm

I just looked up primer, because it annoys me that I’ve heard it pronounced prih-mer (for the book) when it is really pry-mer according to what pronunciation rules we have. I know,we have tear (cry) and tear (rip) pronounced differently, as well as read (present tense) and read (past tense), but I still find it annoying. And I didn’t find it a stupid Ping. (Of course this is the only Ping I have read so far.)

Tom January 19, 2010, 12:17 am

to Anneke:

That would make sense if that was the derivation of the word primer, unfortunately your supposition (i.e. guess) about the root is incorrect.

Dan February 11, 2010, 12:13 am

to Tom:

Oh yes? I would have thought that a textbook “primer” is called that because it prepares the reader for what comes after, as when priming a pump, or priming a wall for painting. And given the similarity in meaning and identical spelling, I would suppose that not only should those words be pronounced the same, but that they would have the same etymology. Perhaps you would like to back up your assertion that we are wrong about this?

And by the way, “That would make sense if that WERE the derivation”.

Linsel October 12, 2010, 9:10 am

I grew up with the English pronunciation (with the long I – Pry-mer, if you will) and recently got in a discussion with a friend about the alternate pronunciation at my bar.

I’d never heard “Primmer” out of anyone’s mouth but his, but he insisted that it was proper American pronunciation — and Webster’s backed him up.

I’m convinced, however, that the etymology of this American version is based on an accident. What other possible reason could we have for pronouncing the words with a short i?

It’s clearly derived from the Latin, “Primus”, meaning “first”. Its meaning is no different from that the British English version. According to our somewhat obscure and odd pronunciation rules, it would have to be spelled differently to be pronounced with a short i.

I’m confident that, at some point in the past, someone mad a simple error, but they were in a position of power where no one felt comfortable correcting them – like George Lucas when he wrote and directed the first three episodes of Star Wars. 🙂

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