Mind your language

Should you be prejudiced against ‘pre-’?

Suspect-looking terms with a surprisingly long provenance

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘Pre-diabetes is an artificial category with virtually zero clinical relevance,’ said an American professor in the Times. A friend of mine has even been told by the vet that her little cat is in a pre-diabetic condition, being a little over the norm on the feline body mass index. I began to think that pre-diabetes was like the countryman’s hills: if you can see them it’s going to rain. (If you can’t, it’s raining — you’ve got diabetes.) But then I did something sensible. I looked up the term in the dictionary.

It is no neologism. The first example in the OED comes from more than 100 years ago. ‘At present we know little of any pre-diabetic stage of diabetes,’ a expert wrote in the Lancet in 1907, ‘and it is not possible to foretell whether a given case of pancreatitis will or will not go on to diabetes.’ No doubt more is known today, and in any case, sitting around eating eccles cakes all day reduced the odds against.


In the 19th century the medical world took on pre- terms like recruiting offices in 1914. Pre-malignant came along in 1884 and pre-epileptic in 1903, but earlier in the 19th century pre- was also employed to signify place, not time, as in pre-dorsal, a position anterior to the dorsal part (which may be on the tongue, which has a dorsal feature as familiar as the Dorsoduro of Venice).

In its frequent combination with personal names (pre-Darwinian, pre-Christian, pre-Shakespearian) there is a notion that pre- was found preferable to ante- because the latter sounded like anti-, and there’s a great difference between being innocently ante-Freudian and resolutely anti-Freudian. Pre- could also have stronger implications than the merely chronological. ‘I reverence — indeed almost idolise,’ wrote William Rossetti in 1850, ‘what I have seen of the Pre-Raphael painters.’ But it was his circle that became known as Pre-Raphaelites, not the painters who had actually been active before Raphael.

The pre- terms that are particularly infuriating imply no more than what has to be done anyway: pre-cooked, pre-washed, pre-wrapped. Pre-order is a pet hate. What does it add to order? But it has been around since 1937. It doesn’t do to prejudge these things.

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  • Arthur Thistlewood

    In the term ‘pre-diabetic’, the notion is that the person to whom the term is applied will possibly or probably graduate from the preliminary stage to the full condition and that this transition is, so to speak, intrinsic to the aetiology of the disease. A medical friend tells me that the word can be useful to define and then manage cohorts of patients on lists of one sort or another (a work process that has largely replaced medicine itself) although it is a source of anxious excitement for the worried-well who can, and presumably do, claim to be pre-everything. (I myself am currently ‘pre-deceased’ for example – well, just about.) But what about the use of the prefix, in a term such as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, in which the idea is not to define a preliminary stage leading by some teleological process to a full, ‘Raphaelite’ condition? Though many think that this particular artistic shower would have done well to learn to draw and paint properly and achieve ‘Raphaelitism’ itself, they used the prefix to announce their determination to stay just where they were. Are there other opposite uses like this?

  • Put me down as anti-Freud and permanently pre-lapsarian but please don’t peg me as pretentious. Cheers.

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