The other day I was waiting to board a plane—waiting, that is, until the gate staff had exhausted the manifold, subtle and perplexing distinctions of rank that govern the boarding process on many American carriers, in which small groups of passengers are identified by various high-sounding words such as elite, premiere, diamond, gold, platinum, and the like. After the trickle of passengers meeting the requirements of each of these rather esoteric categories strode confidently and serenely through the preferred boarding lane it was time for ordinary mortals like myself, whose boarding passes were only marked with a number.

When my number group was called, I walked up to the nonpreferred boarding lane, along with a sizable herd of my fellows. At this time one of the gate staff made a general announcement over the public address system, informing us all that premium snacks would be available on board. Though I had just heard all the other words intended to mark enviable distinctions (highlighted above), something told me that premium was not being used in a similar way. In other words, the gateperson was not letting us know that snacks "having or reflecting superior quality or value" would be available for our delectation; she meant that they weren't giving them away.

Premium is a versatile word that occupies a unique semantic space in English, with nodes corresponding to ideas of scarcity, superior quality, preference, payment, and reward. Of these, the last two are the most etymologically correct, corresponding to the meaning of classical Latin praemium. The ways in which the usage of premium has changed in the last century or so have given premium a kind of circuit-training workout, allowing it to exercise its meanings vigorously at each of these nodes at different times.

The associations that people have with the word have changed considerably from what they used to be. Today, when premium appears before a noun, we are likely to arrive at a meaning somewhere between "extra payment" and "superior quality," or possibly both of these, depending on the context. It's interesting to see how our instincts about what premium really means are guided by what's going on when we hear it. If the mantra of the real estate agent is "location, location, location," the mantra of the semanticist is surely "collocation, collocation, collocation": it usually doesn't take much more than a companion word for us to decide what premium is up to.

The nouns most likely to follow premium today are rate, price, service, brand, and product. This is much changed from the usage of premium the late 19th and early 20th century, when premium was not often used attributively. I looked at the Corpus of Historical American English to see what nouns typically followed premium back in the day. Aside from usages involving insurance premiums, there is not a premium + noun compound in the entire corpus that appears more than once except one: premium vinegar. Following up this unexpected collocation led to an interesting article from the Atlantic Monthly from December 1870, written by Ralph Keeler and called "Confessions of a Patent-Medicine Man." The article is aptly titled; Mr. Keeler writes about the various scams related to him by a man he met at a resort. In one anecdote the patent-medicine man says:

I think a grand universal fever-cure was, at this time, the principal burden of my thought, suggested, as you will understand, by the malady from which I was slowly recovering. I am not sure that I would not have discovered something in that line which would have been beneficial to the world, or, at least, to my depleted pocket, if the idea of vinegar had not in some way been suggested to me. Vinegar was very dear in that country [the South] just then, fifty cents a gallon; and a good article could hardly be obtained at that price. I determined forthwith to get up some plausible receipt* for making vinegar at a cheaper rate. As it was an invention to depend for its success wholly upon its plausibility, I did not need to make any experiments. As soon, therefore, as I was able to leave my bed, my receipt was ready. It was as follows: Take five gallons of soft water, one gallon of whiskey, two pounds of alum, one pound of cream of tartar, and one gallon of yeast. Let them work three days. A prime article of vinegar, it was claimed, would be the fair result, at the cost of from three to five cents a gallon. I borrowed or begged a bottle of good cider-vinegar for a sample, and commenced operations. Having no money to get my receipts printed, I stated that they were copyrighted—whatever that meant—in Charleston, S. C., and that I was expecting a new supply in a few days. I would, however, as a favor, write out a limited number of them for any impatient customer who was willing to pay the regular price, which was one dollar. I called my invention United States Premium Vinegar; and by means of challenging people to discover the difference between my sample and the best article made from the old, exploded, conventional cider, I sold eight receipts the first half-day. Going on to the next town, I had five hundred receipts printed, purchased an additional bottle of cider-vinegar, and started on my travels North. I never waited long enough in a place to learn the results of my amateur chemistry.

This colorful story is a telling vignette in the development of premium as a marketing shibboleth and it's interesting to note that the genius of using it in this way appears early on in the language of a man who made his living by deceitfully winning the confidence of the public. It's also interesting that the word prime appears in the conman's narrative ("a prime article of vinegar") and it leads me to wonder how much of the shine that premium  still enjoys has rubbed off by association with prime, a word that shares all of its letters and some of its sounds with premium but that is unrelated to it etymologically.

At around the time that this meaning of premium was gaining traction, another use of premium was developing, originally in US English, that further complicates the word's meandering history. This new use was as a noun, based mainly on the notion of "reward" that is inherent in premium: premium became a gift that came "free" with some other purchase or donation. This meaning of premium persists today: "Send in your contribution now and receive this free premium tote bag" or "a mini flashlight that is given away as a free premium for buying a case of motor oil."

By the mid 20th century marketers did not have a problem with designating ordinary mass-produced products with the label premium, such as meats of the Swift company, which are still so designated.


Photo courtesy of Bluwmongoose.

Modern media and the Internet have probably nudged premium a little bit back towards the payment node of its meaning owing to two extremely common compounds in use today: premium channel  (a television channel that is not part of a standard package and requires extra payment) and premium content (online material that is not viewable or usable without payment or subscription).  Another compound today that has a surprising number of hits is premium theme, which designates a website template that you can purchase, having found that the free ones are just not cool enough to deliver your message.

The many and sometimes conflicting uses of premium in marketing might well induce a person to turn to premium vodka (also a frequent compound today). What should the modern consumer surmise on hearing premium before a noun? The common theme from the get-go is the notion that all things premium are better than ordinary, and that they perhaps elevate the possessor thereby; owning a premium product might make you special. In this respect, premium is not so different from some of the words above that led me into this topic, or from signature, which I wrote about last year in a different blog. The one thing you can probably count on when you hear premium before a noun is that money is meant to change hands, and someone hopes that it will be your money!

* Mr. Keeler uses receipt in an older sense that has been replaced in current English by recipe.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 2nd 2013, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Marco P.
Always love your articles - they are always interesting. I do have one little pet peeve in the first paragraph, though. In the last sentence, it should be "ordinary mortals like me" as opposed to "ordinary mortals like myself."
Tuesday September 3rd 2013, 7:23 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
This was interesting - * Mr. Keeler uses receipt in an older sense that has been replaced in current English by recipe.

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