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This word—used to mean an elementary textbook, not a painting material—annoys me to no end. Does anyone know why, exactly, "primer" is pronounced with a short "i" sound? I don't know why, call it intuition, but I can't see why this word isn't spelled "primmer." Are there any particular etymological reasons for this spelling/pronunciation combination?

EDIT: Apparently this situation is only recognizable to American English speakers. I've only ever heard it pronounced with a short "i," but this seems to be completely unheard of to British English speakers.

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The spelling makes sense to me. I am surprised (and dismayed) by the pronunciation. –  John Y Jan 26 '11 at 5:47
I am completely boggled at this question, and its answers. I have never heard anybody pronounce it "primmer", nor ever heard before any suggestion that it might be so. You live and sometimes you learn ... –  Colin Fine Jan 26 '11 at 12:29
As an American, I am familiar with the short-i pronounciation of the word. –  Matt Ball Jan 26 '11 at 16:21
In my 21 years of living in America, I can honestly say the "primmer" is the only way I've ever heard it pronounced. –  advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 3:32
Of course my pronunciation is "standard" and everyone else's is "nonstandard". –  GEdgar Jul 7 '11 at 18:41
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7 Answers

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Personal experience: It's not. Primer is pronounced with a long i sound, like miner or buyer, and I've never heard it ever pronounced differently.

Linguistic answer: Dictionaries vary on which is the correct pronunciation, but the OED, which is generally considered the final word on the English language, accepts both pronunciations as valid. Etymologically speaking, the long i pronunciation is somewhat more valid, as it is related to words such as primary and prime, so it is possible that the short i pronunciation is a contemporary corruption.

If the short i pronunciation should stick (I personally doubt it), the spelling will likely eventually change, but (at least in Southern California) it doesn't seem to be predominant, so that's why we stick with the long i pronunciation and the single "m".

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Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries give the pronunciation suggested by the original question as the first pronunciation. Indeed, the talk page on Wiktionary shows it used to have the "primmer" pronunciation but it was removed for dubious reasons. –  nohat Jan 26 '11 at 6:18
@nohat Ok, I consulted the OED (I just learned they have the coolest IPA popups) and apparently both are in use. But I've never heard of the short i pronunciation, and considering it's etymology, I'm sticking with the long i pronunciation. –  waiwai933 Jan 26 '11 at 6:47
I think the "primmer" pronunciation is a shibboleth for orthoepic pedants. It frequently appears on lists of words that people often pronounce "incorrectly", along with "err should rhyme with her" –  nohat Jan 26 '11 at 7:41
Another Southern California person here who has never heard it with anything other than the long "i." So I wouldn't say it is ubiquitous in American English. –  Jeshii Jan 26 '11 at 17:12
-1 for the first line. It's practically the only way it's used in America. I hear it all the time from professors and on American television. The word pronounced "pr-eye-mer" is a type of paint. The word pronounced "primmer" is an introductory text or lesson. –  advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 3:36
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The short 'i' tends to be used in American English, referring to the introductory textbooks. I have heard it quite often from good quality US media outlets (NPR etc.) so would assume it is regarded as standard. The British English is pronounced with a long 'i' (as in miner).

For the meaning of 'primer' as in a first layer of bonding material on a wall etc. before it is is painted, or in explosives/ammunition, the British pronunciation is, again, with the long 'i' (as in miner) and the American pronunciation is usually, in my experience anyhow, also with the long 'i' (as in miner).

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Yeah. I would say that primer as a type of paint is always pronounced "prymer." It's the intro-textbook connotation that has a variable pronunciation. –  advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 4:34
I'm a UK speaker who's fairly used to hearing Americans pronounce words oddly. Given the context, I guess I'd understand "primmer", but I don't recall ever hearing it. What I find odd is that many people apparently say "primer" for the pre-undercoat. To me they're both just transparent figurative usages of the one word meaning "something that primes". Different accents, I get. But I'm amazed anyone would think to split those two meanings of one word, by pronouncing it differently. –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '12 at 23:41
@FumbleFingers The etymology of book-type primer is not from something that primes. It's from church-Latin primarius, a prayer book. –  Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:55
@Mark Beadles: As it happens, I just watched John Wayne's 1975 movie "Rooster Cogburn" last night, wherein Eula Goodnight says The Bible "was her primer" (except she actually says primmer). As johng says, Brits simply don't make that distinction in pronunciation, regardless of whether the two words have "different" etymologies (though I'd still say they really both have the same underlying origin anyway, even if you see them as separate). –  FumbleFingers Jun 25 '12 at 17:15
@Mark Beadles: haha - a very prim and proper observation! Apropos which I just leafed through OED looking for other examples of the short "i" in this general area. Couldn't help noticing primmer - obs. spelling of primer n.1. I bet this will be one of those rare cases where the UK leads the way, and eventually the US falls into line (in another century or so! :) –  FumbleFingers Jun 25 '12 at 21:13
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Considering it comes from Latin primarius and has been spelled prymer and prymar throughout the 700-odd years since it was coined, I think it's fairly safe to say that the long i is standard.

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Wrong answer, dude. –  tchrist May 8 '12 at 21:03
Only half right. It comes from primarius, and its pronunciation started as /i/ and then was subjected to the Great Vowel Shift in some dialects. –  Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:56
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The OED pronunciation of primer, n.1 is

Brit. /ˈprʌɪmə/, /ˈprɪmə/, U.S. /ˈprɪmər/, /ˈpraɪmər/
(in sense 2d) Brit. /ˈprɪmə/, U.S. /ˈprɪmər/, N.Z. /ˈprɪmə/

That shows that apart from sense 2d, the ‘long i’ version is preferred in Britain and the ‘short i’ version is preferred in the U.S., and that apparently everyone says the ‘short i’ version for sense 2d (see below).

It also notes that:

Pronunciation with ‘short’ i (/ɪ/) is original (and is still usual in senses relating to type); pronunciation (in the other senses) with ‘long’ i (now /ʌɪ/) seems to be first recorded in British dictionaries of the late 19th cent. and is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.

Which says that the ‘long i’ version is new, and that the original and historic pronunciation is the ‘short i’ version, which America has retained more than Britain has.

The referenced sense 2d is

Chiefly N.Z. A class covering one of the first years of instruction in a primary school; a child in a primary school class.


primer, n.1

Third edition, June 2007; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/151307; accessed 08 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1908.

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Peripheral regions retaining conservative pronunciation is the usual situation, no? –  Charles May 8 '12 at 14:55
@Charles Not always. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Italy is more conservative of the original Latin pronunciation than Spain, Spain more conservative than Portugual, and Portugal more conservative than France. –  tchrist May 8 '12 at 15:03
Italy more linguistically conservative than Spain? Not on your life! Spanish is much closer to VLatin than Italian. A better example (for you) would be that French is more linguistically innovative than Italian vis-a-vis VLatin. –  Charles May 8 '12 at 15:08
(And of course I said "the usual situation", not "always".) –  Charles May 8 '12 at 15:08
@Charles Actually, yes, Italy is in some senses more conservative than Spanish. Notice how nouns inflect in the plural in Italian, using nominative forms rather than the accusative forms that Spanish uses. More interestingly, look at the various two-syllable Spanish words with peculiar (usually marked) stress. Those still have three syllables in Italian. The forces of lenition have been more at work in Spanish; think of Spanish verbs like ver and leer. But yes, the Baetic accent from the Iberian Peninsula under Roman rule was indeed considered a prestige form of Latin for quite some time. –  tchrist May 8 '12 at 15:12
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I'm California born and bred and have taught for 26 years. In SoCal it is pronounced primer with a short "i" when referring to a primary level basal reader. All other uses it is pronounced with a long "i" as in "prime".

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I've heard the "primmer" pronunciation only occasionally and only in SoCal (where I now live). Why do you think it got its short-i pronunciation? –  ukayer Mar 26 '12 at 1:26
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I'm American and I always pronounced primer with the long "i" whether referring to paint or primary readers, and then one day I started noticing other people (intelligent ones at that) saying it with the short "i". The first time I heard it, I thought the other person was in error, but after a while when you start hearing more people pronounce something a certain way, you start to wonder. I always assumed it should be pronounced with the long "i" as in "primary" because the context is the same.

Well, I just checked my French-English dictionary, which provides audio of all the words in both languages AND uses the British pronunciation. And the Brits do apparently say "pr-EYE-mer".

Why some of us in America are doing it differently, I still don't understand.

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the vowel in "primer" is long because there is only one consonant after it, you need two consonants to make the vowel a capital sound. eg. tiny/tinny or, pony/potty or, biter/bitter. In the old days (lol) you had to "prime" the pump before you could get water out of it, so the word is used to express the action of a precursor, something that is needed before the main point, to "prime" you ready for the following whatever. I had never heard it pronounced as primmer until I came to California.

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Pronunciation doesn't follow spelling in English. Spelling is irregular and based on old pronunciations, which have since changed. The book "primer" does not come from the need to "prime" anything; it's well-documented that it comes from Latin primarius, a prayer-book. –  Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:59
Liver, river, give, ritual, delicious, validity, figure, and countless others are spelled with a single consonant after the I, yet the I is short. Nobody feels compelled to write livver, rivver, givve, figgure... (And don't get me started on live which constantly changes its pronunciation but never its spelling.) –  RegDwigнt Jun 25 '12 at 11:55
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protected by RegDwigнt Jun 25 '12 at 11:56

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