Words-worth: Subprime

Before 'subprime', there was 'prime', meaning 'first', 'foremost' or 'best'.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

All these meanings were present in the Latin primus, the ultimate source of the word, although it came to us through French at the close of the 14th century. It was particularly used of food and is still popular among butchers, who use it to describe the best red meat: 'prime steak', for instance. It's also used about land and property: a 'prime site' or 'prime space'. That was a North American idiom, and you might think it was the direct source of 'subprime' mortgages. Yet the adjective applies to the borrowers, not the property: 'people whom most banks wouldn't touch', in the words of the New York Times. The definition comes in an article of March 1996, the earliest use of the term we can find. It was a new phenomenon, used in second-hand car sales as well as home loans. The attraction was that you could charge subprime borrowers much higher rates of interest. 'This is a business that is not for the faint-hearted,' said a man from Bank of Boston, which owned several subprime operations. How true.

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