“Tonight’s episode has been pre-empted.” Pre-empted! How peremptory! Is it cancelled or just postponed? Wait – pre-emption is postponement? Well, that’s preposterous.

And yet there you have it. We may be tempted to think it unkempt, and perhaps a sign of contempt, for a third party to attempt to exempt itself from the usual rules and schedules. But broadcast schedules, like so many others, tend to follow the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules. If someone has the money or the power, they can bump you or gazump you. They can even buy the spot before you get a chance at it.

Which is what pre-empt means. Its source (via French) is Latin prae ‘before’ and emptio ‘purchase’. Its first sense is ‘purchase a property before it is offered to another party’. Its use in broadcast started from ‘buy a time slot to keep others from using it’ and progressed to ‘cancel a planned broadcast in order to give the time to something else’ (generally something that’s worth more money, or at least will get more interest, which is largely the same thing).

Now it can be used in an even broader sense if you’re careful about it. One could raise a certain topic in conversation to pre-empt discussion of another topic; one could use a certain political manoeuvre to pre-empt a decision or action. But if you’re tempted to pre-empt, do be aware that it may provoke resemptment. I mean resentment. If your pre-emptees have enough gumption, at the resumption of business as usual – or even before it – you may in turn be gazumped or otherwise thumped. So caveat pre-emptor.


2 responses to “pre-empt

  1. Last night my cousin and her family, who are on holiday, came over to our place for the evening. At the dinner table fourteen-year-old William asked me a question about painting (I’m an artist) and every time I began to answer he butted in and finished my sentence for me. At length, after about five attempts (and ever so slightly ruffled), I looked at him and said, “If you’ll stop trying to pre-empt me I’ll give you the answer to your question.” As the word “pre-empt” left my mouth I wondered if he would understand me, not least because of his youth, but also because his is German… Also, I wondered if I was using the word pre-empt correctly and had a feeling that another word might have been more appropriate.

    I fancy it was the edge of annoyance (if not “resemptment”) in my voice that made my meaning all too clear. As it happens, William understood very well and bore no resentment for, after a split-second, he burst out laughing – we all did!

  2. Pingback: peremptory | Sesquiotica

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