Theresa May, the Home Secretary, wants to stop us preloading — filling up on cheap booze before going to a nightclub. The first time I heard her use the word, I thought she was saying freeloading. But that is a different problem. Perhaps soon we will hear Mrs May talking of getting bladdered or rat-arsed, or whatever the word is on the street.
Preloading belongs to that fast-breeding family of words beginning with pre-. Until recently, preload was a term from engineering, physiology or computing. Ball-bearings might be pre-loaded during the manufacture of a machine so that they ran more smoothly in operation under stress. The human heart itself is subject to preloading in a way that I did not understand when my husband tried to explain it to me, partly because I couldn’t remember which was systole and which diastole. In computing, a preload is something installed to improve the speed of start-up. A preloader is also the name of an image shown on the screen while you wait for a website to load: water filling a water-pistol, leaves sprouting from a branch. These are much the same as the black-and-white footage of a potter’s wheel or waves crashing on to the shore that used to accompany an ‘intermission’ on television.
It is too easy to tack pre- on to words. We become annoyed by pre- formations that seem pleonastic: pre-planning, pre-preparing, pre-rehearsal, pre-clearance (before the clearance sale), and especially pre-ordering. Pre-order has been with us for 75 years in the sense of ‘ordering before an event’ (publication or a theatre interval). But pre-order was used in 1640 by that strange Oxford don James Mabbe in translating one of Cervantes’s novels, with the meaning of ‘pre-arrange’.