Merriam-Webster, tireless defender of words, had a quick and decisive response on Twitter: Nope.
In a frostily polite thread, the dictionary’s social account went through the phrase’s etymology, dating the term to the late 18th century and the economic use of it to the 1930s.
Trump has previously indicated his support for “priming the pump” as economic policy, causing some consternation among conservatives opposed to government spending.
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.
It’s telling that Trump assumes that he came up with the phrase, which has long been a stock term in economic conversation. Abundant evidence already exists that the president rarely, if ever, reads; interviews routinely demonstrate that he is poorly educated on the substance and history of the policies he advocates for and against. This tacit admission that he’s unfamiliar with Keynes and, by extension, one of the great economic debates of the 20th century, provides further confirmation.
What’s more, his claim tends toward self-aggrandization rather than curiosity or reflection. Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that he has “a very good brain” and “the best words,” stakes his business and political reputation on his generative abilities, when in fact his accomplishments often involve simply stamping his brand on projects or concepts developed and executed by others.
Even in his interview with The Economist, Trump seems only faintly aware of what “priming the pump” really means, asking, “you understand the expression ‘prime the pump’? ... Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it.”
He doesn’t seem interested in where the phrase came from, though it’s a fairly unlikely metaphor for someone in 2017 to create. “Pump priming” in its original use dates back to the 18th century, when it referred to the practice of using water to flush air out of a pump, enabling water to flow again. (A little water in to get a lot of water out ― get it?) Manual pumps no longer being a common source of household water for Americans, the original meaning of the phrase is rarely used here today; the economics application is almost certainly the one he’s heard before.
Most hilariously, though, Trump, who has used the phrase in previous months, managed to deny credit to his own past self, saying, “I mean, I just ... I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good.” Hmmm.
Merriam-Webster had another suggestion, perhaps born of the frustration of serving as an on-call definition- and etymology-checker for the president and his administration:
Seriously, please look things up.