Pump Priming

priming_pumpI imagine most of us have a story about a time we used a word or an expression that we thought we’d invented, only to discover that it had been around for hundreds of years. In my case, my vivid memory is of feeling nauseated on a long car ride when I was about 8 years old. I had heard of people being seasick. But we weren’t at sea. So I thought I would coin a new term for how I felt. “Mommy,” I said from the back seat. “I think I’m carsick.”

My mother was a relatively patient woman. She had listened without condescension as I catalogued the many new words with which I was in love: sinewy, grotesque, faint, bolster. But a car with three fussy children in the back is no fun even on a good day. She twisted around from the passenger seat and said, “You’re just saying that because you heard that word somewhere. You shouldn’t use words just to hear the sound of them.”

“I’m not,” I said. And then I threw up.

As we grow older, we gather bits of knowledge like lint, such that finding fresh metaphors is a rarity and failing to know something that’s been around a while feels like an embarrassment. When I was in my 30s, I spoke with a friend who had just been to a folk-music concert and heard a new song that he found particularly moving. “It had a lovely lilt to it,” he said. “It was about a red river valley.”

“Uhhh,” I said, and then I struggled to enlighten him without making him feel like an idiot.

Fortunately for our new president, he is immune to feeling like an idiot. Among the many claims that have had journalists scratching their heads recently was his remark — to an interviewer from The Economist, no less — that the metaphor priming the pump, to mean injecting stimulus money into the financial system, originated with him. Here’s the relevant part of the interview:

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll … you understand the expression “prime the pump”?

We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?

Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

As Merriam-Webster was quick to point out, prime the pump as an expression for a fiscal stimulus goes back to 1933. The origin of the phrase itself dates to the early 19th century. At Language Log, Ben Zimmer has assembled an impressive set of cartoons referring to the expression and dating as early as 1921. As one commenter to The Washington Post observed,

I have actually primed the pump, using a pitcher of water left in the old iron sink for exactly that purpose. Pour the water down the pipe, and then start pumping the handle to bring the water up from the shallow-water well. When I primed that pump, the pump, well, and sink may have already been much older than 84. I was a child then.

Priming has a slightly wobbly origin in the Latin primus, the idea being that before you can do anything else (fire a gun, cover a wall with paint), you have to prepare it. In its application to fiscal stimulus, though, the Keynesian idea was, as Jonathan Chait observed  this week, “a program of temporary fiscal stimulus to inject demand into an economy stuck with high unemployment.” By contrast, the plan our president was discussing with The Economist would “permanently increase the deficit in an economy with low unemployment.” As Chait points out, “Telling The Economist you invented the phrase ‘priming the pump,’ to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called ‘hubcap.’”

But here’s the mystery for you, Lingua Franca readers. Was this “coinage” of priming the pump both ignorant and inventive, like my 8-year-old’s use of carsick? Was it ignorant but derivative, as if my friend had himself taken credit for naming this “new” folk song “Red River Valley”? Was it a weird self-deprecating irony, sort of “I like to claim stuff for myself, and now I’m claiming prime the pump, even though you and I both know it’s been around for decades because we’re both so smart”? Was it a sign of dementia, the phrase itself still rattling around in the head but its origin erased, so the ego rushed in to fill the vacuum and take credit? Or … ? Please don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. This is a language column. Prime the pump is language. It matters.


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