Priming the pump

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"Transcript: Interview with Donald Trump", The Economist 5/11/2017:

That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?

It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll…you understand the expression “prime the pump”?


We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.

We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?

Yeah, have you heard it? Yes. Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just…I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.


Yeah, what you have to do is you have to put something in before you can get something out.

The OED's entry for prime, v.1, sense 5.a, glossed as

To prepare a pump for use by pouring water into it. Also fig., esp. in to prime the pump: to stimulate or support (esp. economic) growth or success by supplying initial investment, encouragement, etc.

The OED's earliest citation is a little while before May 2017:

1916   Everybody's Mag. 35 131   When the waters of business are stagnant, gentlemen, it becomes necessary, if I may say so, to prime the pump.

You can see the context of that quote by following this link, courtesy of Google Books.

The OED's entry for pump-priming gives the gloss

The stimulation of economic activity by investment, esp. by government investment or spending; an instance of this.

And the earlier citation is somewhat later than 1916, but still a bit earlier than May 2017:

1933   Wall St. Jrnl. 16 May 1/2   To carry the pump-priming analogy a step further, it is suggested that a small portion of the expected flow of restored industrial income be directed to the reservoir from which the original ‘prime’ was borrowed.

This has occasioned a certain amount of commentary, e.g. this on Twitter, and also Max Ehrenfreund, "Behind Trump’s ‘prime the pump’ gaffe is a bunch of real news", WaPo 5/11/2017; "Did Trump really invent the term 'prime the pump'?", BBC News 5/11/2017; Brian Murphy, "Trump says he coined the phrase 'prime the pump.' Merriram-Webster begs to differ", Miami Herald 5/11/2017; Chris Isidore, "Who coined 'prime the pump'? Definitely not Donald Trump", CNN Money 5/11/2017;  "AP fact check: No, Trump didn't invent 'prime the pump'", The Mercury News 5/11/2017; Joshua Keating, "Donald Trump Thinks He Invented the Phase Priming the Pump", Slate 5/11/2017; Jonah Goldberg, "Prime Time", The National Review 5/11/2017; Mallory Shelbourne, "Trump tells The Economist he invented the phrase 'priming the pump'", The Hill 5/11/2017; "Fact Check: Trump on Tax Rates, Canada, ‘Priming the Pump’", VOA News 5/12/2017; Jonathan Chait, "Donald Trump Tries to Explain Economics to The Economist. Hilarity Ensues", New York Magazine 5/11/2017; Jack Holmes, "70-Year-Old President Trump Claims He Invented a 78-Year-Old Economic Theory", Esquire 5/11/2017; Libby Hill, "Merriam-Webster reminds President Trump that he didn't invent 'prime the pump'", Los Angeles Times 5/11/2017; Matt O'Brien, "Trump can’t stop saying things that aren’t true", WaPo 5/12/2017; etc.

From David Graham, "Trump's Embrace of the Bubble", The Atlantic 5/11/2017:

“We are all Keynesians now,” Richard Nixon famously remarked, but only Donald Trump could have convinced himself that he is Keynes.

From Neil Irwin, "Priming the Pump: The Economic Metaphor Trump ‘Came Up With’", NYT 5/11/2017:

The term is most closely associated with the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated energetic intervention to try to arrest the depression. By the time Mr. Trump was in school in the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely taught in history and economics courses as part of the story of how the United States emerged from the depression.

The concept was widely discussed again in 2009 and subsequent years in the context of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, which aimed to jolt the United States out of the deep recession. A Nexis search shows the phrase “pump priming” or its variants appeared in 1,073 news articles in major publications in 2009 alone, and they are almost all referring to economics, not water pumps.

My first thought was that when President Trump said "I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good", he meant that he heard it and thought it was good. This is slightly less embarrassing than claiming credit for inventing the phrase, though this lexicographical gap in its most famous graduate is something that the Wharton school might worry about.

But the trouble with this explanation is that Trump has used the phrase himself several times over the past few years, for example at this rally in Des Moines on 12/8/2016:

We're also going to lower our business tax rate
from thirty five percent all the way down to fifteen percent.
That's gonna be great.
((It's) gonna prime the pump.
Gotta prime the pump, gotta get the jobs.

So the whole thing is deeply puzzling. As Winston Churchill said in a broadcast in 1939,

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

However, this is surely one case at least where Churchill's next words are not relevant:

…but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.


  1. Lukas said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:10 am

    Is it just me, or does his reaction make it seem that he doesn't know what exactly Keynesian means? "No, I don't want to talk about whatever you just said, let's talk about how great the phrase priming the pump is instead."

  2. Outeast said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:21 am

    He says "I haven't heard it", though, which is consistent with the interpretation that he's under the impression he invented it. I find it unlikely that the Donald has much experience with priming water pumps, though, or with tipjars (another colloquial context). Urban dictionary does mention a couple of other senses that might be more plausibly familiar to him….

  3. Outeast said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:23 am

    And @ Lukas: It's not just you. Though it might just be that he was ignoring an insult. Or just not actually paying any attention to voices not his own.

  4. ajay said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 8:36 am

    Or it's just a dominance game. You lie more and more outrageously and watch the other person squirm as they force themselves to agree with you. Kim Jong Il did not actually believe that he once hit eighteen holes in one – of course he didn't. But I'm sure he enjoyed the feeling he got as he listened to everyone else congratulate him on doing so. Or like the school bully beating his victim and then forcing him to say "thank you".

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    I once worked for someone whom Donald Trump somewhat resembles. My reading is that he (Trump) has a very short attention span, a limited range of intellectual interests, a similarly limited range of life experiences, a poor memory, and is simply not very bright, so he greatly overestimates how much he knows and comprehends (a la Dunning–Kruger). Unfortunately, the width of the Atlantic can't insulate me from the longer-term effects of his Presidency.

    On top of all that, he is obviously a deliberate bullshitter, and expects his eminence to compel people to fall in with his afactual (word? should be) narratives.

    Something of linguistic relevance I've noticed is that, in all his public speech that I've heard, he seems to use the vocabulary of a ten(?)-year-old. I wonder if this is a deliberate rhetorical ploy (perhaps overdone), or if he talks in the same way in more private situations, and did so publicly before his political career?

  6. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

    The Grand Rapids Press of July 30, 1914 has "A Fable in Which the Name of Mr. Ford of Detroit is Given Valuable Advertisement." The body of the piece is an extended metaphor of a manor house with a pump that needs to be primed as its water supply. The lord of the manor allows his servants only just enough water to make it through the day and have enough left over to prime it the next morning. But on a hot day the servants drank the priming water. This is explicitly explained as being a business depression. Then Henry Ford comes along and provides a pailful of wine to prime the pump, to everyone's benefit.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    What I find striking is that the way Trump speaks about the metaphor (however you take his claim of credit) seems to presuppose that he and his assumed audience are familiar enough with the old manually-operated variety of pump that gave rise to the expression for the relevant analogy ("put something in before you can get something out") to be transparent. I have literally primed that kind of literal pump myself, in the long-ago context of Boy Scout camping trips at locations sufficiently off-the-grid for that to have been the water-supply infrastructure as of the late 1970's. I expect that by contrast there are lots of speakers of AmEng (especially ones who are younger and/or grew up in non-rural areas who are fully familiar with the economic metaphor as a fixed idiom but haven't the foggiest idea what the original literal meaning was, and wouldn't have a clue as to what to do if suddenly put in front of that sort of pump.

    Trump had a privileged (and, even more to the point for his generational cohort, urban) upbringing, but it wouldn't surprise me if the military-style boarding school he was sent to involved might have involved "maneuvers" or the equivalent in places with infrastructure as low-tech as some of the places my Scout troop went a generation later.

  8. Yuval said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

    Just noting the unfortunately missed opportunity of naming this post "priming the Trump".

    [(myl) That's the title I used at first, but then I chickened out.]

  9. rpsms said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

    The thing is: you prime a pump to form a seal to create a vacuum which allows an inrush of water.

    This is pretty different from "put something in to get something out." If he had gotten the metaphor correct, one might consider ignoring the outrageousness of the claim.

    [(myl) There's more. From Jonathan Chait, "Donald Trump Tries to Explain Economics to The Economist. Hilarity Ensues", New York Magazine 5/11/2017:

    Trump did not invent the phrase “prime the pump.” It has been around since at least the 1930s and is extremely familiar to economists. Nor does it describe his plan. Priming the pump refers to a program of temporary fiscal stimulus to inject demand into an economy stuck with high unemployment. Trump is instead proposing to permanently increase the deficit in an economy with low unemployment. Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap.”

    Update — see also Catherine Rampell, "Trump’s worst lie about ‘priming the pump’ isn’t that he made up the expression", WaPo 5/15/2017, which makes the same point. ]

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    @Terry Hunt — Yes, YouTube has several interviews of DJT by Oprah Winfrey, for instance, HERE.

    I don't think that there's much doubt that his oratorical powers have declined significantly in the past 30 years.

  11. I invented the Internet said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

    I'm as liberal as they come and want Trump impeached, but I have to step in to defend the man. So Trump falsely claiming to have coined the term. does it matter one way or the other?
    He's an alpha male with an inferiority complex, so he can be falsely boastful. We know he is a business, political, and television genius, so give him credit for that. I've also claimed to make linguistic innovations in my naivete that I later found out were false. So what. And why is no one upset about Al Gore falsely claiming to have invented the Internet or Bill Clinton claiming he didn't have sex with Monica Lewinsky but Monica Lewinsky had sex with him. Not a single post here about that. I searched.

  12. Jon said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 1:57 am

    @I invented:
    The difference is that Trump claimed to have invented an expression, Gore claimed to have invented a thing, and Clinton lied. Origins of words and expressions are of interest here.

  13. Keith Clarke said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 2:07 am

    @I invented:
    From the LL "About" page: "Language Log was started in the summer of 2003 by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum."

    They're superhuman, obvs., but I don't think they've mastered time travel yet to report on a story from 1998.

    There's some interest I think in the nuances of the phrase "have sex with" which did get talked about re whether or not Clinton could plausibly claim that he didn't lie, even if LL wasn't around to discuss it.

  14. GH said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 2:44 am

    @ I invented:

    We know he is a business, political, and television genius

    Haha, no.

    And why is no one upset about Al Gore falsely claiming to have invented the Internet

    People were upset, as evidence by you remembering an incorrect smear nearly twenty years later.

  15. maidhc said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 3:40 am

    I can concur with J.W. Brewer. I am 64 years old, younger than Trump. I grew up in mostly urban environments. However in my childhood, whether through summer camps or visiting rural relatives, I had plenty of experience with hand-operated water pumps that needed to be primed.

    I don't remember encountering the phrase with an economic aspect until I attended university, but I think that's because I was a clueless teenager.

  16. DMT said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 5:44 am

    Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

    — J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

    (When I learned about Trump-pump-prime-gate, I assumed that every article and every blog post on the topic would allude to this famous passage of Keynes' General Theory, but it seems hardly to have been mentioned at all. Is this because the passage is not as famous as I had supposed, or because the irony does not seem quite as delicious to others as it seems to me?)

  17. D.O. said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 8:17 am

    Trump seems to be a bit absent-minded at times. Let's hope that's just how he is, not that he has more and more frequent senior moments.

  18. AntC said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 3:37 am

    @NY Magazine Priming the pump refers to a program of temporary fiscal stimulus to inject demand into an economy stuck with high unemployment. Trump is instead proposing to permanently increase the deficit in an economy with low unemployment.

    Those rich-listers who are the main beneficiaries of the tax cuts might possibly stimulate the economy by investing in the U.S. and generating employment. More likely, though, they'll spirit the money away into Panama-based trusts or invest in technology that will make more unemployment or invest/create employment in cheap labour countries like Mexico or China — or even invest in dodgy schemes in Russia.

    Perhaps what Trump means is he's inventing applying "priming the pump" to tax giveaways. A new (and heretofore incorrect) coinage.

  19. I read the Trump interview in The Economist and just thought "More grist to the mill". Others went to town on his pump priming. said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 7:43 am

    […] to a post on and a post on […]

  20. Episode 288: Letters Lost – Talk the Talk said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 1:58 am

    […] Language Log: Priming the pump […]

  21. davep said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 7:45 am

    How much experience does Trump have with using pumps?

    Is the phrase "priming the pump" used much in contexts other than financial?

  22. davep said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 7:58 am

    Is the phrase “priming the pump” used much as a metaphor in contexts other than financial?

    Some people suggested that it's somewhat likely that Trump had interactions with actual pumps. I still doubt it. Having gone to a military school seems thin as evidence.

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