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While I was out of the office on vacation, a premier/premiere slip slid into print at The Sun. It's one of those mistakes that could simply be a typo, a mere spelling error, rather than a mark of ignorance, and it is a little window into the workings of English.

Both words rise from the French primer, "first in time," but they arrive by separate routes, having undergone a differentiation.

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Premier, an adjective meaning "foremost," "first in importance, rank, or position," is very old in English. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from the late fifteenth century referring to "Maisters Gower, Chauucer & Lydgate, Primier poetes of this nacion." By the seventeenth century, premier had also taken on the sense of "earliest."

Also in the seventeenth century, the sense "premier minister" had emerged, so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the noun premier alone represented "chief minister," then "prime minister."

Premiere, in the sense of "a first performance or showing of a play or film," was a later arrival. The sense originated in French in the mid-nineteenth century, crossing the Channel into English in the latter decades of that century.

The OED also has a scattering of citations for premiere in the senses of "first in time" or "foremost," and the American Heritage Dictionary lists premiere as ad adjective as an alternate of premier. (American Heritage also appends a usage note suggesting that objections to premiere as a verb, a usage that arose in the 1920s, have largely vanished.)

The recurrence of premiere as an adjective suggests that the premier/premiere differentiation has not been completely established. I suspect that the early OED citations date from before the spelling was regularized, the modern ones from confusion of the words.

The task, for those of us who are reasonable prescriptivists, is to maintain the distinction. Premier, as an adjective meaning "foremost" or "earliest" and a noun meaning "chief official" is well established and well attested. Premiere as a noun or verb indicating "first performance" or "first showing" suffices for those limited senses.

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