Optimus Prime

Perhaps it would be better if each of the words in the English language had just a single meaning. That way, there would be absolutely no ambiguity when you used any given word, because it would only have one possible interpretation. For better or for worse, that is not the case. One prime example of this multi-meaning phenomenon is the word “prime.” There may be words out there with even more definitions, to be sure, but “prime” can be used under so many contexts for so many different reasons.

The World of Finance

Let’s start our word-defining journey with a visit to the bank. In the world of finance, the prime rate (sometimes called the prime lending rate) was historically the interest rate offered to a bank’s most favored customers. These would be the people with good credit, sizable collateral and so on. If these people came in asking for a loan from the bank, they’d probably get the “prime” rate.

These days, though, that definition isn’t strictly true anymore. Instead, the prime rate is used more as a benchmark on which some other interest rates may be expressed. One of the best examples of this is the interest rate on a mortgage. If you pick up a variable rate mortgage, the interest rate is usually described in reference to the prime rate. You might get “prime minus 0.80,” for example. The current prime rate in Canada is 3.00%, so that variable rate mortgage would be charged an interest rate of 2.20%.

The Mathematical Sense

Heading back into the classroom, you might remember prime numbers from math class. A prime number is an integer (“whole number”) where its only integral factors are itself and 1. In other words, thinking only of whole numbers (and not fractions), a prime number is where you can only divide it by 1 or by itself. An example of this would be the number 7. You can divide 7 by 7 and by 1, and not by any other integer. As an aside, 1 is not a prime number, because it only has one factor: 1.

The Context of Cycling

When I attended the Giro di Burnaby Road Race in 2011, I learned another meaning for the word “prime,” except in the context of cycling, it’s pronounced differently. Rather than rhyming with mime or time, “prime” for a criterium bicycle race rhymes with team or laser beam. While there is still an overall winner for the race, the participants in a criterium race can earn (typically cash) rewards for winning “primes.” These are specific laps of the race and they are usually indicated with the ringing of a bell. The racers then know that the winner of that lap will earn the cash prize for the prime.

The Food Industry

I’ve usually heard the use of the word “prime” when referring to beef, but I imagine it could also be used for other foods as well. Prime refers the highest grade of beef as rated by the USDA and other similar organizations around the world. When you to a restaurant, you might hear that they use USDA Prime for all of their steaks. When the beef is rated as Prime, it means it is the highest in quality and intramuscular fat. According to Wikipedia, about 2.9% of carcasses in the United States earn this grade.

The Preparatory Version

The above definitions for prime have largely been nouns and adjectives, but prime can also be used as a verb. To prime means to prepare or to get ready. In sports, you might hear that a champion is “primed” to defend his title. If the sociopolitical factors are favorable, then you could say that a particular economy is primed for growth.

It is from this definition that we also get the word primer, which usually refers to a document (or book) that serves as an introduction to a certain topic, particularly for people who are completely new to the subject. For example, I wrote a primer on how product reviews work for freelance writers. There is also the primer that you could apply to a surface before you paint it.

The More General Way

And finally, there is the more general meaning of the word “prime.” It can be used as an adjective to indicate that something is first in importance, degree, quality or excellence under a variety of contexts. You might notice that Optimus Prime from the Transformers universe is depicted at the top of this post. In that particular example, Prime is the title of the leader (usually of the Autobots). You could say that this is a “prime” example of this usage.

Similarly, while he is not technically the head of state in Canada, the prime minister is effectively the person in charge of the Canadian federal government. He is the “first” or “most senior” minister. In real estate, you might hear that a house is in a “prime” location, meaning that it is in the most desirable location.

Can you think of a similar word in English that is used so many different ways in so many different contexts? Perhaps this post has primed you to suggest another prime topic for a future Grammar 101 post.