Daily Archives: November 17, 2008

The Use of “pre”

I enjoy learning the way meanings and uses of words have changed over time. I knew it happened, but it wasn’t something I often thought about. The most obvious one that every American knows is “gay.” If you ever read old American (or even British works, I guess) works, you’ll see that gay means happy. I’m not totally sure how that word ever came to mean what it does now…and it’s even becoming an insult word now.

So while changes to words wasn’t something I was completely unaware of, I really became aware of the differences when teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at UNA. Most international students come with a completely different understanding of how language should be used.

Anyway, the use of “pre” these days is really what got me thinking about all this.

Webster’s gives us several definitions of “pre,” but they all generally mean “before” or “prior” or something similar. This is the definition with which we’re all familiar and are comfortable. Pre-history means before recorded history; pre-game means before the game; preview means to view before you view?

But now it seems like advertisers and big marketers are trying to skew the term pre-fix.

Take for instance, the term pre-owned cars. Now, we all know that what the cars salesmen really mean are used cars. But used sounds…well, so used, and has negative connotations so they want to change that perception. But, pre-owned should mean “before owned” right? So…really, the term they’re tossing at us has a different meaning. “Before owned” should suggest that it hasn’t been owned before, right? Because before something is “owned,” it is not-owned. And that is the opposite of used.

But what they’ve done is take the “pre” and twisted it. Their “pre” is shortened for “previously.” Previously owned carries a far different meaning than pre-owned. Ah-ha! See, they’re trying to trick us with a play on words!

I also read something recently in one of the writing forums I’m on: “pre-published author.” Now, if you’re like me and are completely unfamiliar with the term, it could possibly have two completely opposite meanings! It’s not like the two meanings are similar and any guess would be close. A pre—meaning before—published author would be one that’s never been published before, while a pre—meaning previously—published author means one who’s had work published before. Two completely different meanings. How are we supposed to tell which is which?

There are many other examples of the discombobulation of the “pre” term, but that’s enough for you to see what I’m talking about. For me, it’s kinda like politicians: I wish they’d just say what they mean to say and stop trying to make it sound “nice.” Used is used. Unpublished is unpublished. We can all understand that!

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