In the Land of the Pre

Anyone who has ever been credit-challenged knows pre-approved does not mean approved in advance but rather, “Would you like to apply?”  Pre- was once a perfectly unpresuming  prefix like un-, pro-, semi-, or alt- (well, maybe not that one).   Over the last decade, however, pre has taken on the characteristics of a parasite, attaching itself to noun and verb alike, a contagion that has spread to nearly every corner of our linguistic house.

I have been asked to preschedule appointments, send payments in pre-printed envelopes, pre-set the table, pre-soak clothes, and pre-plan vacations.  Isn’t planning by its very nature done in advance?  Pre doesn’t just live on the fringes either, showing up in perfectly credible places.  I read of pre-loosening caps (which means to loosen caps) in The Atlantic, and heard pre-celibate on NPR’s former show “Talk of the Nation.”  That means to be a virgin.  My wife’s grad school text books discuss pre-teaching, or teaching an absent skill before teaching something else, which used to be called “remedial teaching” or even just “teaching” without letting specifics like the order of instruction impede eloquence.

Order is, of course, the point of all this pre, and as far as I can tell this ball got pre-rolling with cookbooks. Recipes are uncompromisingly orderly things. If the instructions are to “beat butter, eggs, and sugar, until creamy,” followed by “combine dry ingredients and egg mixture,” you better do it. Soft peaks do not form on eggs once the flour is added. Cakes fall like overextended empires when steps are not taken in order.

In recipes from a hundred years ago typically the heat of the oven was simply part of the final instruction as in a pumpkin pie recipe from the Rumford Complete Cookbook of 1908, the last line reading, “Bake in a moderate oven about forty minutes.”  The detail of getting the oven hot would be handled long before the batter was poured because heating the oven involved more than turning a knob.  I suppose for space purposes they just omitted the instructions “collect six quartered logs of medium size, two hands full of dry twigs, four sticks of fat lighter, and matches. Light kindling then add logs and allow to burn down to coals, approximately 2 hours.”

The assumption of the heated oven was the template for decades. A strawberry jam cake from the 1935 Southern Cookbook says, “Bake in layers in moderate oven (350o F.)” The Princess Anne Cookbook from 1930 has 9 or 10 recipes per page and uses great economy of words with baking.  The entire instruction for Currant Cake is, “One cup sugar, ½ cup butter, 2 eggs, 2 cups flour, 1 cup currants, 1 even teaspoon cream tartar, ½ even teaspoon soda, ¾ cup milk, vanilla, or lemon for flavoring.” A look at a 1949 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook shows this pattern held through the end of the World War II decade.

The next year America would usher in the Eisenhower era when the last of the riveting Rosies and other similarly independent women were finally tethered to their kitchens, and I guess they needed some help. In 1950 the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook debuted and made cooking so accessible than even a man or a stereotype could do it (well, maybe not the man). In addition to having cartoon images of women lookin’ all post-war and photographs illustrating easy-to-follow instructions like “stir in in liquid and flavoring,” and “place pan in oven,” at the top of the recipe were instructions like, “read recipe,” “collect utensils,” “assemble ingredients,” and then, there it was: “Preheat oven.” You see, pre assumes you are stupid. Really stupid.


A page from the 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Pre sat around unused outside of cookbooks for decades and didn’t gather steam until marketers got involved. Marketers have been screwing with the King’s English for ages, Exhibit A being the 1954 Winston ad that read: “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should.” Beside the fact that a cigarette tastes like burning leaves, the copy should have read “as a cigarette should,” according to the standards of the day. Apple later would rankle with its “Think different” campaign. Thanks to that preheat thing “prepaid” phone cards came in under the radar and around the same time gas stations added pay stations at the pump.  Then those ubiquitous but never-quite-standardized stickers showed up. Without irony, pre reached its redundant extreme with this:WGD-03

Then it was “pre-owned” cars, a trick intended to draw attention from the fact these cars are used.  If there must be pre, the pattern fits better with pre-used, but I don’t see that happening.

So now we are stuck with pre-stamp, pre-record, pre-require, pre-order, pre-tune, pre-register, and pre-exist.  Webster’s paper dictionary doesn’t recognize the word preexist so I checked with the (because Google lists it first), which says the transitive verb pre-exist means “to exist before (something).”  The example given is: Dinosaurs preexisted humans. That makes sense because “Dinosaurs existed humans” doesn’t. But the intransitive verb pre-exist means “to exist beforehand,” that is, to exist before existing. Pre: the Alpha and the Omega.

It’s not too late to put this genie back in the bottle if we all just apply this simple rule of thumb: if the word makes sense without pre, leave off the pre.  In other words America, if it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it.

If you enjoyed this article please read, review, and recommend my novels:

Departure Day

The Wandering: Departure Day Book II

Ciphers: Departure Day Book III

Eisodus: Departure Day Book IV


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