Language Corner

The eminence of ‘preeminent’

November 6, 2019

Many recipes call for “preheating” the oven. But why can’t they just say “heat the oven to x degrees”? It adds an extra syllable but no extra heat; even the Associated Press Stylebook says “Avoid use of the term.” 

And how can you “predesignate” something? If you designate it, then it should remain designated.

Last, why do we have the term “preeminent”? Does that mean something that became “eminent” before something else did?

Ah, the wonders of pre-fixes that seem to be pointless!

We wrote about some of these ten years ago, including “pre-owned,” “pre-plan,” and “pre-pay,” as examples of nonsensical terms. Back then, we said, “Garner’s Modern American Usage calls ‘pre-plan’ ‘illogical,’ but the North American Oxford Dictionary accepts it unconditionally, as it does ‘pre-need’ and ‘pre-pay.’ Garner says ‘pre-owned’ is ‘a common euphemism,’ and Webster’s New World College Dictionary accepts it.”

Times have changed.

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For one thing, most usage authorities now call for words beginning with “pre-” to have no hyphens, even if the word it’s attached to begins with the letter e. The Associated Press Stylebook still calls for hyphens “if the prefix ends in a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel” but recently changed its guidelines to list as exceptions “double-e combinations such as preestablish, preeminent, preeclampsia, preempt.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage wants the hyphen only when the e is doubled. Merriam-Webster and Webster’s New World College Dictionary eschew the double-e hyphen in nearly all words but allow hyphenated versions for many. (The hyphen is recommended universally when what follows “pre-” is a proper noun or a number.)

For another, Garner’s Modern American Usage has become Garner’s Modern English Usage, and the North American Oxford Dictionary was then, and remains, the New American Oxford Dictionary. (A late correction is better than never.)

And last, despite our best efforts, most of those words remain in common usage, which means they’re not going away.

Let’s focus our attention on “preeminent.” It is not as it seems.

M-W defines “eminence” as “a position of prominence or superiority.” It defines “preeminent” as “having paramount rank, dignity, or importance.” (The “-ence” endings are nouns, while the “-ent” endings are adjectives. We’re interchanging the forms for illustrative purposes.)

In other words, “preeminence” is a more, er, eminent eminence.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which offers only the hyphenated “pre-eminence,” traces the word to about 1225, and says it is borrowed from Latin and French words meaning “privilege” and “superiority” in rank or birth, and “excellence.”

The “pre” prefix usually means “before,” whether preceding in time or space. But in “preeminence,” it means “before” in the sense of “ahead of,” as in “before all others in her class.”

“Preeminence” has another claim to superiority: it predates “eminent” by two hundred years. The first OED citation for “eminent” in the sense of “remarkable in degree” is from 1420. So “preeminence” was not an intensifier of “eminence”; rather, “eminence” was a demotion from “preeminence.”

We call cardinals in the Catholic Church (and some secular leaders) “Your Eminence,” not “Your Preeminence.” Oliver Cromwell started calling people “eminences” in 1653, the OED says. That is some irony, considering how he felt about Catholics.

To judge from Nexis for the past six months, grade inflation has struck the “eminent.” Mentions of “preeminence” with or without the hyphen far outnumber the merely “eminent.” And many of the “eminent” citations are for “eminent domain,” the eighteenth-century doctrine, as M-W puts it, of “a right of a government to take private property for public use by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction.” Given the way things are going in government now, they just might start asserting “preeminent domain,” because that sounds like an even bigger authority.

THE KICKER: Can Condé Nast’s empire rise again?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.