Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Prebuttal: hot new `pre' ups the anti-ante

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Rebuttal Begins for a Speech Not Yet Given" was the headline. "In a `prebuttal' to the presidential address," reported Carl Hulse in the New York Times, "Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, plans to urge the president to use Sunday's elections in Iraq as an opportunity to change course in that country."

A mere rebuttal -- from an Old French root meaning "violent butting of heads," now evolved to "refutation; contradiction" -- comes too late in the souped-up world of cut-and-thrust debate, falling hopelessly behind the power curve of the whirring news cycle. We are now in the political era of the prebuttal.

Early use and perhaps coinage of the new locution can be attributed to Al Gore. In a May 26, 1996, article about the "Clinton War Room," Dan Balz of the Washington Post credited the "rapid response operation" of the Clinton-Gore campaign for "picking off issues before Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole even gets his TelePrompTer warmed up. Vice President Gore calls it "prebuttal."

Eight years later, during debate coverage in the most recent presidential campaign, the technique and its name gathered momentum. When asked by Gloria Borger on CNBC about "predebate buzz," Roger Simon of US News & World Report noted: "People from both camps ... hand out their responses as each line of the debate goes on. So there's rebuttal, there's prebuttal and then afterward there's spin."

After the prebuttal by Reid mentioned above, he and the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, delivered the formal, televised rebuttal following the president's State of the Union address. Brit Hume of Fox News, noting that their presentations had been written before they knew precisely what the president would say, called it a "pre-reaction," which will soon be compressed into preaction.

Let us rise above politicolingo to focus on a general linguistic phenomenon: the new pre-eminence of the prefix pre-.

The growing prefixation was spotted in this space in 1986, when Vice Adm. John Poindexter, then the national security adviser to President Reagan, created the Crisis Preplanning Group. Although I carped at the notion of planning for, rather than avoiding, crises, my greater concern was the redundant preplan. That verb had been kicking around uselessly for 50 years; the semantic essence of to plan is "to make arrangements beforehand; to prepare for the future"; thus, preplan means "to plan to plan." (This was best satirized by the William Steig cartoon caption "One of these days we've got to get organized," as well as the familiar sign reading "Plan Ahead," with the last few letters crammed in at the margin.)

Pre- has a history of being used to create new words by replacing re-. More than three centuries after the noun review came preview. Reheat of 1727 found its preheat in 1898. (And what cook pops a pie into an unpreheated oven?) The 1875 retrial was followed by the 1938 pretrial. The 1656 rebate waited until 1987 to find its prebate. And in 1999, the State of Vermont sent checks to residents "to help them pay their property taxes," reported USA Today, identifying the checks "known as prebates."

The ubiquitous prefix moved into the euphemism arena in 1961, prettifying used, in "used car," with preowned. (Can you imagine a used-car dealer advertising "secondhand cars?" I'd be tempted to buy one, just to encourage him.) Now the honest word secondhand is relegated to the ash heap of dysphemism, shivering in its preowned fur.

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