Printable Version
Pronunciation: pree-empt Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb

Meaning: 1. To take priority or precedence over, to supersede, as federal law preempts state and local laws in the US. 2. To take some action that renders the plans of others moot or irrelevant, as to preempt criticism with a public apology. 3. To displace or interdict because of preeminence, as a news flash might preempt a regularly scheduled program on TV.

Notes: The English-speaking world has not settled on a correct spelling of this word. In addition to our spelling, two other proposals are out there: pre-empt and preëmpt—in all, three possible spellings of today's word. This word was created by backformation, a process by which a previously nonexistent stem is retrieved from what is perceived to be a derivation. Preempt was pulled out of preemption. Once this had occurred, two adjectives popped out of the same hat, preemptive and preemptory. Someone who preempts is a preemptor.

In Play: The second sense of today's Good Word probably preempts all others: "Tommy Gunn's plea of temporary insanity in court was preempted by a tape recording of him planning the crime." However, in today's technological age we cannot ignore the third sense above: "I hate it when school closing announcements preempt my favorite TV program, Duck Dynasty!"

Word History: Today's Good Word was created by combining pre- "before, pre-" + Latin emptio(n) "buying", the noun, based on the past participle, emptus "bought", of emere "to buy". The personal noun from this same verb is emptor, as in the phrase often used in English: caveat emptor "buyer beware". The root of word goes back to a Proto-Indo-European word em- "take", which also turns up in Russian imet', Czech mit, Serbo-Croatian imati, Polish miec, Macedonian ima—all meaning "have". (I would like now to preempt any complaints about my not doing so with this word of gratitude to Kathleen McCune of Norway for recommending today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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