Friday, April 06, 2012

If only it did mean that

I've always been interested in the morphology and etymology of words, and often fantasise outlandish origins or amusing back-formations of my own for them.

One of the first words I remember becoming slightly obsessed with - when I was only about 10 or 12 years old - was preposterous.

The prefix I understood, but there was something very odd-looking about posterous. It seemed to me that it ought to have something to do with posters. In fact, I soon convinced myself that it ought to mean worthy of being celebrated on a poster (not necessarily the same thing as appearing on a lot of posters, you understand: it's the difference between Gandhi or Einstein and Justin Bieber or David Beckham).

Hence, when you're on your way to global fame but you haven't quite got there yet, you're pre-posterous. And soon enough, of course, the hyphen falls away - et voilà!

Well, I think it ought to be a word.

Footnote 1:  I have learned that Posterous - with a tie-in to a rather different idea of 'post' and 'posters' - was adopted a few years ago as the name for a mobile blogging platform.

Footnote 2:  Preposterous is ostensibly derived from Latin (the logically strained combination of 'pre-' and 'post' implying back-to-front or topsy-turvy), but it looks like late medieval cod-Latin to me; I'm pretty sure I never came across praeposterus anywhere in the Classical canon!


Brendan said...

Possibly even later than late-medieval -- here's the OED entry:

preposterous, a.


Also 7 -postrous.

[f. L. præposter-us reversed, perverted, absurd (f. præ before + poster-us coming after, following) + -ous. Cf. obs. F. prépostère (Cotgr.).]

1.1 Having or placing last that which should be first; inverted in position or order. Now rare.

   1552 Huloet, Preposterouse, out of order, ouerthwarth, transuerted, or last done which should haue ben first.    1583 Stubbes Anat. Abus. ii. (1882) 59 This is preposterous geare, when Gods ordinance is turned topsie turuie, vpside downe.    1589 Puttenham Eng. Poesie iii. xx. (Arb.) 262 The preposterous is a pardonable fault.‥ We call it by a common saying to set the carte before the horse.    1657 M. Hawke Killing is M. 56 Though the Monster lurk in Cacus cave, yet notwithstanding his preposterous steps will be discovered.    1725 Bradley Fam. Dict. s.v. Tulip, Which would certainly do them harm, by reason of the preposterous Motion it might give the Sprout when the Season for planting the Bulbs is come.    1809–10 Coleridge Friend (ed. 4) I. 224 It is, indeed, in the literal sense of the word, preposterous.    1856 Ferrier Inst. Metaph. Introd. §62 The fatal effects of this preposterous (in the exact sense of that word) procedure.

†b.1.b Having the eyes set behind. Obs. rare—1.

   1665 Glanvill Scepsis Sci. xvii. 102 Thus our Eyes like the preposterous Animals are behind us.

2.2 Contrary to the order of nature, or to reason or common sense; monstrous; irrational; perverse, foolish, nonsensical; in later use, utterly absurd.

   1542 Udall Erasm. Apoph. (1877) 14 He checked the preposterous & ouerthwarte iudgemente, that the common sort of people haue of thinges.    1584 R. Scot Discov. Witchcr. x. vii. (1886) 148 Dreames in the dead of the night are commonlie preposterous and monstrous.    1593 Shakes. 3 Hen. VI, v. vi. 5 Good Gloster, and good Deuill, were alike, And both preposterous.    1641 Milton Judgm. Bucer xxii. Wks. 1738 I. 281 Austin and some others, who were much taken with a preposterous admiration of single life.    1713 Gay Guardian No. 149 ⁋12 The muff and fur are preposterous in June.    1789 W. Buchan Dom. Med. i. (1790) 2 Nothing can be more preposterous than a mother who thinks it below her to take care of her own child.    1809 W. Irving Knickerb. (1861) 103 To exclaim at the preposterous idea of convincing the mind by tormenting the body.    1863 P. Barry Dockyard Econ. 126 America has constructed, and is still constructing, ships of war of preposterous tonnage, simply because England is constructing ships of war of preposterous tonnage.    1879 Froude Cæsar xxviii. 480 The very notion is preposterous.

Froog said...

I hope you didn't copy all of that out by hand, Mr Scrivener.

I thought I'd seen a citation even earlier in the 1500s than that. I suppose the 16th century is classified as 'Early Modern', is it? Always seems like a bit of a grey area with Tudor England!

Froog said...

I'm also kind of assuming that anything that seems to be immediately fairly widespread has likely been growing in the common speech for at least a few decades before it happens to get written down, rather than originating with a one-off literary invention.

And it does rather have the flavour of medieval Latin about it. They used to invent some hilarious hybrid words back then, like cottagium, and even featherbeddium. I kid you not. This is the kind of thing modestly schooled lawyers used to put in wills in the 1300s.

John said...

Myarseium. Noshitium? Thisiseasyium. I'mcleverium.

Froog said...

That sounds more like the work of contemporary lawyers, when they've been down the pub for a few hours.