Primer, Manual and Handbook

By Maeve Maddox

In American usage, the word primer has two pronunciations, according to whether it refers to a beginning reading book [PRIM-ur] or to an undercoat of paint [PRY-mur]. In British usage, it’s pronounced the same way for both [PRY-mur].

This post is about the word primer [PRIM-ur] as it applies to a source of elementary instruction.

The first primers were devotionals or instructional manuals written for Christian church members. They contained prayers and explanations of doctrine.

Because primers were often used for the secondary purpose of teaching children to read, later church primers contained a section with the ABCs. In 1545 primers intended specifically for children began to be published under the title The A.B.C. Primers. By 1600, the word primer referred chiefly to books intended for beginning reading instruction.

When I was in grade school, I had a textbook that showed pages from The New England Primer, the first elementary textbook published in the American colonies. It contained the alphabet with a verse for each letter. One that springs to mind after all these years is the unforgettable verse for the letter X:

Xerxes must die
and so must I.

The meaning of primer as a beginning reading textbook or a book of religious instruction has not entirely disappeared, as can be seen in these modern titles available at Amazon:

A Gospel Primer for Christians
Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers

The term has evolved to mean a small introductory book on any subject. For example:

A Primer of Assyriology
The Puppy Primer
Loom Knitting Primer
Cheese Primer
The Pantry Primer
C++ Primer Plus
A Primer for the Mathematics of Financial Engineering

In extended use, primer can include things other than books:

Along the way, their work [that of the Coen brothers] has served as a primer of American history—their films are almost uniformly period pieces—especially as reflected onscreen.

Fights with the enemy were a given, though as it turned out the Iraq War served as a primer for Afghanistan, where Scheuer was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat.

Altogether, the [Barlow] campaign served as a primer in Catskills history.

Originally, primers were quite small. Here are three other English words for books that contain basic information and are small enough to carry about:

manual noun (classical Latin manualis, “held in the hand, of a size to fill the hand”): a book containing in concise form the principles, rules, and directions needed for the mastery of an art, science, or skill.

Example: The acronym IAEFRTM stands for “If All Else Fails, Read the Manual.”

handbook noun (literal English translation of Latin manualis): a concise reference book covering a particular subject or field of knowledge.

Example: His favorite gift was A Handbook to Help Identify Hudson River Fish Larvae.

vade mecum noun: (Latin imperative: “Go with me!”): A vade mecum is a small book convenient for carrying about.

Example: Dr. Thaddeus William Harris prepared a catalogue of insects that served as the vade mecum of the working entomologist in the northeastern part of the United States for at least fifty years.

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2 Responses to “Primer, Manual and Handbook”

  • Brandon Burt

    Good article. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I learned to pronounce “primer” to rhyme with “dimmer.” (Even today, when I read the word, I think of the other pronunciation — which I learned here is preferred by the British, and so is not so bad — to rhyme with “timer.”)

    At first I was wondering, in the fourth quoted block, whether or not the second example (“the Iraq War served as a primer for Afghanistan”) might not actually include the word in its other sense: an undercoating of paint or, more broadly, that which was preparatory for something that came later, as perhaps the Iraq War might be perceived as preparatory to the War in Afghanistan.

    However, once I read up on Sergeant Major Brett C. Scheuer’s career, I realized that the first sense, an introductory tome or experience, was more appropriate.

    Still, it made me wonder: As these two words become used more broadly and more metaphorically, is there some point at which “primer” and “primer” become interchangeable? That is, can they be synonyms as well as homographs? (And then, for that matter, doesn’t it make sense that the British treat them as homonyms?)

    Are there other words that are both synonyms and homographs?

  • venqax

    I am aware that in the context of a beginning book, in SAE, the standard pronunciation is with a short I, so rhyming with simmer. But I have never heard or seen an explanation as to why. The single M would dictate a long I, just like in the homograph and just like in other words with a single M in the same context– timer, chimer. The short I pronunciation in all rhyming words comes with the doubled M– dimmer, swimmer, shimmer, glimmer. The short/long vowel preceding a double/single consonant is the rule in general for multisyllabic words. Dinner/diner, bitter/biter/, latter/later. hater,hatter, liner, finer, miner, shiner, winner, thinner, beginner, And coming from the root prime with a long I it seems even more appropriate to keep the I long. This demands an explanation!

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