This just in.

Dear Word Detective: If it’s possible to “pre-empt” something, is it possible to just “empt” it? — Jo.

Yeah, sure, there’s an app for that. There must be, right? I discovered the other day that a disturbing number of you people out there read this column on your telephones, which strikes me as fairly weird, and makes me wonder if I should be writing shorter sentences with shorter words. Like this one. In case your bus comes. Or something. I actually did set up a “mobile” version of my website a few months back, but it made my deathless prose look like a ransom note, so I pulled the plug.

“Pre-empt” is one of a class of strange little words (“co-opt” is another) that make many people uncomfortable and drive spell-checkers nuts. It’s the hyphen that does it, but there’s really no way around it unless both words become as commonly used as “cooperate,” which you still frequently see spelled as “co-operate” outside the US. “Pre-empt” is increasingly spelled “preempt” here in the US, but that form still makes me look twice, which is not what you want in a word.

“Empt” actually is a verb in English, but (Star Wars reference ahead) it’s not the verb you’re looking for; it’s related to “empty,” it means “to be or make empty,” and it’s considered obsolete to boot. To “pre-empt,” on the other hand, means “to preclude, to forestall, to prevent an anticipated occurrence or to take action before another person is able to.” We usually hear “pre-empt” in the TV sense of “replacing a scheduled program or event with another deemed more important,” but it’s also commonly used in the “act before someone else has a chance” sense (“It is hoped the move could pre-empt an announcement by the Government that it has found a way to alter planning laws,” 2005).

“Pre-empt” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century, and the verb was actually a “back-formation” from the noun “pre-emption,” which dates back to about 1600. (“Back-formation” occurs when a simpler word, often a verb, is created from an older, more complex form. The verb “to sculpt,” for instance, was formed long after “sculptor” appeared.)

Pre-emption,” of course, is also commonly used today meaning simply “the act of pre-empting” in all its various senses.

But the original meaning of “pre-emption” gives a hint as to its source. When “pre-emption” first appeared, it was in the specific sense of “The purchase by one person or party before an opportunity is offered to others; the right of making such a purchase in certain circumstances” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word was formed from the prefix “pre” (before) plus “emption,” a legal term meaning “to buy.” The root of “emption” was the Latin verb “emere,” to buy; the agent-noun of that verb is “emptor,” famous from the Latin phrase “Caveat emptor,” or “Let the buyer beware.”

There have been several legal doctrines based on various “rights of pre-emption,” usually entitling either the state to seize property or a private party to purchase public property with a promise to improve it. When a new law overrides an existing one, that process is also called “pre-emption.” There’s also the military tactic of “pre-emption,” making a surprise “pre-emptive” attack on a putative enemy deemed sufficiently threatening. And, if the conflict is sufficiently momentous, such a “pre-emptive” attack will probably result, at least on the “pre-empting” end, in “pre-emption” of America’s Top Model by men in ornate uniforms standing in front of maps, at which point it might be a good idea to meditate a bit on “caveat emptor.”

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