Priming the pump?

中国日报网 2017-05-26 15:52



Priming the pump?Reader question:

Please explain “prime the pump” in the following passages (FACT CHECK: No, Trump didn’t invent ‘prime the pump’, Associated Press, May 11, 2017):

President Donald Trump took credit in an interview for coining the phrase “prime the pump,” seemingly unaware that it was popularized during the Great Depression more than 80 years ago and has been used frequently ever since.

“I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good,” Trump told “The Economist” magazine in an interview published Thursday. The interviewers refrained from correcting the president about a well-worn metaphor for generating faster growth.

My comments:

US President Donald again invited ridicule when he told The Economist that he invented the phrase “prime the pump”.

Not only that, he even asked the reporter from The Economist, a weekly magazine known for its in-depth analysis and good writing in general, whether he had heard of the phrase. The reporter acknowledged that he had heard of the expression without contradicting or correcting Trump.

Being British (plus Trump being Trump), The Economist would not deign to contradict or correct him even if the US President claimed that he wrote Shakespeare, I’m afraid, or that he invented the English language itself.

The Associated Press, on the other hand, feels no need to explain the phrase in its Fact Check because it is a “well-worn metaphor”.

Later, Merriam-Webster, a dictionary, tweeted that phrase actually “dates to the early 19th century.”

In the economic sense, later pointed out (Merriam-Webster Politely Tells Trump He Did Not Invent Phrase ‘Prime The Pump’, May 11, 2017):

The concept dates back to economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that when a population’s “animal spirits” were flagging, an influx of government spending could stimulate the overall economy. The use of the phrase “prime the pump” to describe this policy dates back to 1933, according to Merriam-Webster ― just about 13 years before Trump was born.

Anyways, “prime the pump” derives from the practice of working a water pump, meaning to get the pump up to top (prime) form so that it can operate with force and at full capacity. To do it, you pour a bowl of water into the pump to allow its suction valve to function – the water blocks the air passage, thus creating vacuum and therefore suction.

As an economic metaphor, priming the economic pump means government investment in various forms. In this sense, money from the government works like the water you put in the pump in order to prime it up so that the machine or the economy, as it were, can work properly again.

The New Deal pioneered by Frank D. Roosevelt during and after the Great Depression (Google it to find out more on the subject) was a good example. Roosevelt spent a lot of money building roads and bridges, creating jobs in the short run while facilitating travel and commerce in the long run.

That time, I may add, priming the US economic pump works.

Whether Trump’s particular attempt to prime the economic pump will work, only time will tell.

As time has told, however, Trump certainly did not invent the phrase.

The moral?

Invent new words and expressions. Do not coin old ones.

All right, here are a few examples of “prime the pump”, including two from the distant past, that is, well before “a couple of days ago” when, somehow, Trump “came up with it”:

1. “I’m sorry Mr. Gould,” I said, “but I think we’d better just drop the whole thing.”

“Oh, no!” Gould said. His voice sounded alarmed. “Look,” he said. “I have an abnormal memory. In fact, people have often told me that I probably have what the psychologists call total recall. I’ve lot chapters of the Oral History several times and reconstructed them entirely from memory. Once, I lost one and reconstructed and then found the one I had lost, and a good many pages in the two of them matched almost word for word. If you’ll meet me in Goody’s tonight, I’ll recite some chapters for you. I’ll recite dozens of chapters. If you’ve got the patience to listen, I’ll recite hundreds. You’ll get as good an idea of the oral part of the Oral History that way as you would be reading. Considering my handwriting, you may even get a better idea.”

That night, around eight, Gould and I sat down at a table in a quiet corner in the back of Goody’s. First, he drank two double Martinis, doing so, he said, for a particular purpose. “I have found,” he said, “that gin primes the pump of memory.”

- Joe Gould’s Secret, by Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker, September 26, 1964.

2. Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Utah have discovered two genes that cause long QT syndrome, an inherited disorder that causes sudden death in young, otherwise healthy people.

In two papers published in the March 10 issue of Cell , HHMI researchers report that mutations in genes encoding proteins that comprise part of the heart's electrical system cause increased risk of sudden death from an abnormal, chaotic heart rhythm. The findings are the first to uncover the molecular basis for cardiac arrhythmias, abnormal heart beats which can disrupt blood flow to the brain and other vital organs.

Long QT syndrome causes episodes of arrhythmia, and although this specific inherited syndrome is not a common disorder, cardiac arrhythmias kill about 300,000 Americans each year, said principal investigator Mark T. Keating of HHMI at the University of Utah.

Keating’s group identified mutations in two of the heart's ion channels, which are proteins embedded in the surface of heart cells. Under normal circumstances, the channels open and close rhythmically. This process ensures an orderly flow of the chemicals necessary to sustain the heartbeat. “Both mutant genes cause an increase in the excitability of heart tissue, a dangerous situation that can prime the pump for the development of life-threatening arrhythmias,” Keating said.

Long QT is primarily an inherited disorder, but Keating said that some individuals may develop a drug-inducible form of the syndrome while they are on certain medications. Many drugs are known to induce long QT, including erythromycin, antihistamines, and some anti-arrhythmic medications.

The reason these drugs can have a potentially lethal impact on some people and not others is unknown. “We believe that drug-inducible long QT may result from subtle mutations in cardiac ion channels,” Keating said. Up to six percent of people in the United States may have these more subtle mutations, he said.

- Genes discovered for sudden death syndrome, a silent killer of young adults,, May 1, 1995.

3. TRUMP: “You understand the expression ‘prime the pump’? … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do. We have to prime the pump.”

The Facts: He didn’t coin that phrase. It’s a well-used metaphor for generating faster growth, first made popular as an economic analogy more than 80 years ago during the Great Depression.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary quickly tweeted that the phrase “priming the pump” has been around since the early 1800s. Literally, it’s about pouring water into a pump to allow it to create suction. The phrase was commonly used by mining publications during the 1920s, but it took on new significance after the economy crashed during the Depression.

By 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promoted the idea of flushing money into the economy to stimulate stronger growth with his New Deal policies. Such policies rankled Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover. “One of the ideas in these spendings is to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said in a 1935 post-presidential speech. “We might abandon this idea also, for it dries up the well of enterprise.”

- Priming the pump: Trump lays an egg in interview with financial magazine,, May 12, 2017.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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