Monday, May 18, 2009

When Did Primary Become a Verb?

Is it just me or is anyone else bothered by this recent bit of vernacular short-handery? For example, Merrick Alpert to Primary Senator Christopher Dodd. Is it that hard to say, "Merrick Alpert to Challenge Senator Christopher Dodd in a Primary?" Or better yet, "Merrick Alpert to Challenge Sen. Chris Dodd in a Primary?" I mean, there are two examples of already established short-hand. And why is the use of the verb primary confined to this particular race? [I've seen it used elsewhere, too.] It all just seems as silly as the Republicans calling the Democratic Party the Democrat Party or the Democrats childishly responding by calling the GOP the Republic Party.

Of course, what should not be lost in this curmudgeonly rant is that Chris Dodd is being challenged in next year's Connecticut senate primary by a former aide of Al Gore's.

Hat tip: Political Wire [See, they got it right. "Dodd Draws Primary Challenge." Oh fine, rant over.]

Recent Posts:
2012 GOP Candidate Emergence Tracker

North Carolina Won't Be Frontloading for 2012 During 2009

Who Had May 15 in the Office Pool for Jon Huntsman Joining the Obama Administration?


Jack said...

I have to support Merrick. Anyone named for my home town deserves to be in the US Senate. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with the usage. Sometimes nouns, over time, become verbs. Here is an example: "I wanted links for those NC and CA bills and Googled it only to find that I had Googled it previously." — Josh Putnam, November 13, 2008, comment on

Josh Putnam said...

My issue in this case is with the longevity of the well-established phrase, challenge in a primary. In the Google example that longevity is lacking. The company has been around for just over a decade and its development coincided with Google becoming a verb.

Quite differently, primaries have been around for over a century. Why the switch now? What brought this on? Who started it? I want these answers.

It isn't that different from a lament Bill Simmons had a few years ago:
"...[L]et's welcome the new annoying announcer trend of the season: Every other play-by-play guy adopting Al Michaels' tendency to describe someone's injury just by naming the body part involved, as in, 'The Eagles will miss Brian Westbrook, who's out with a knee today.' So we're making time for sideline reporters and their boring anecdotes every game, but play-by-play guys can't take 1.3 extra seconds to detail a relevant injury to a relevant player? Really?"

It's really just very strange to me.

...but I'm just a caveman.

Ooh, and bonus points for using my own words against me, Jack. I'm surprised this hasn't happened any more than it has.

Jack said...

I also dislike the "out with a knee" phrase. However, that one phrase has existed for a long time doesn't mean that a new, alternative phrase cannot be coined. If this were the case, the English language would be far more static than it is.

Josh Putnam said...

I agree, but this particular phrase happens to fall exactly in my area of interest.

In reality, I'm just jealous I didn't come up with it. Ha!

S.D. said...

I agree with Jack: there's absolutely nothing wrong with the phrase. And while I can't comment specifically on this word, I've spent enough time reading linguistics blogs to know that most of the time, "new" coinages and usages that people deplore are actually decades if not centuries old. I may shoot an e-mail to someone and have him look into it for me.

I would also argue your claim that its use is being restricted to one race. Over in the comments section of Political Wire, it seems to get used more often in reference to Arlen Specter than to Chris Dodd. And when one googles "primaried" (I use that because it's unambiguously a verb form, unlike "primaries" or "primary", the on just the first page one finds references to seven different people, none of them Dodd (or Specter, for that matter).

Jack said...

Then there's the nine-primaried oscine, a bird that is a political animal if there ever was one.

Josh Putnam said...

If you do look into it, shoot me an email and I'll put that up in its own space.

Yeah, there's definitely an argument to be made on the usage centering on the Dodd case. Those were just the examples that were readily available when I searched. But, yeah there were several instances where it was used in reference to the PA GOP primary when Specter was still tacking that R to the end of his name.

One last thing on this:
Primaried is also fairly unimaginative in my book. We need to think of something along the lines of gerrymander (another great example) that we can use in place of primary(-ed, -ing) here.

S.D. said...

The talk of primarying Specter hasn't stopped. Only now it's Sestak who is being discussed instead of Toomey.

The problem with finding a name along the lines of Gerrymander is it needs to be something significant. Has an incumbent president ever lost, or even been seriously threatened in, a primary? (Losing in a convention before the ascendancy of primaries doesn't count.) If so, that might be a good name.

Barring that, I do have a couple of less-than-serious suggestions:

1. In honor of Arlen, we could call it Specter-Hunting.

2. We could combine the names of Specter and Dodd to create the portmanteau "Sodd". This would be great fun to say: "He's a Republican but he keeps voting in favor of cloture? SODD HIM!" :-)

Josh Putnam said...

Carter was probably the president the closest to being sodded.

Even though it was before primaries mattered, an incumbent president losing under those circumstances likely would have been vulnerable. As such, Lyndon Johnson may have been sodded if he'd chosen to run for reelection in 1968.

S.D. said...


Before I got around to e-mailing anyone about the issue, I decided to do some basic research and checked out a copy of the OED in the local library.

The result? "Primary" as a verb does not appear in there. And remember, this is OED we're talking about here. The entry for "primary" was nearly three pages long. At best, it was a new enough usage at the time that it didn't yet warrant inclusion.

The edition I was looking at came out in 1989, so I think we can safely assume use of the word as a verb is, at the absolute most, 30 years old.

But you never know. I probably should still look further into it.