premiss

The first time I saw this spelling of the word premise, I thought, Oh, my, how prissy. Who are they trying to impress? Must be one of those special British things.

Of course, I was proceeding on the premise that premiss was a deviant spelling of premise. But, now, why would I assume that? After all, premiss is a more phonetically appropriate spelling. But I had seen premise all over the place, in various places and premises, and besides, who makes it even to the beginning of elementary school without knowing the word promise? And aren’t promise and premise related?

Indeed they are related. And not just because a premise is a sort of promise (if you present reasoning based on a given premise, you are saying to your addressee “I promise you this much is true”). The mise is the same mise, and the pre and pro are the “before” and “for” Latinate suffixes we know and use in so many places. But where does that mise come from?

From Latin mittere, that’s where, and more specifically from its past participle missa: “sent” or “put” – or, sometimes, “dismiss”. Oh, but hey, how about that dismiss? Isn’t that the same little miss again? Oh, yes, that miss is a hit, no mistaking.

So, then, why promise and premise with the mise? The answer to the second question is that premise is a spelling likely influenced by promise, or by the same source that gave promise its spelling. And what was that source? Why, the language more responsible than any other for the weirdness of English spelling: French. Even in modern French the past tense feminine of mettre “put” is mise, though of course it’s pronounced like “me’s”. (There is some indication of pronunciation of English promise with [z] at some times in past centuries, too.)

So, in fact, premiss is more in accord with the initially given conditions. But now even British spelling has left the premises – or I should say the premiss. The exception is in speaking of logical propositions (the original sense; the physical sense followed on the abstract sense, in a reversal of the usual order), where – rather more among the British – premiss is often used still.

But, you know, I can’t look at premiss without seeing it as having an extra hiss at the end. Of course it’s said just the same, but the look of it has the escaping-steam hiss of press; one might even have the sense that it simpers a little. And if you pluralize it, premisses, it looks like it might mean “misses in advance” – perhaps as in “I miss you already”? But that’s all seen though the prism of unfamiliarity, of course, which has its own logic.

Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting premiss.

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