In a Word: A Preposterous Oxymoron

Sometimes a word’s etymology stares you in the face, just waiting for you to notice.

A young boy with glasses screaming into an open book

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Some etymologies are surprising in the way they link seemingly unrelated words. Others are surprising because, despite using a word for decades without recognizing where it comes from, its etymology is so obvious. A word’s derivation can stare you in the face for years without you seeing it, until one day, out of the blue, you have an a-ha! moment, and a word suddenly makes complete sense.

Preposterous, you say?

I agree: Preposterous is the perfect example.

Preposterous isn’t exactly a common word, but it isn’t uncommon either. We might pull out preposterous to point out how ridiculous or utterly absurd a statement or situation is. And perhaps it’s some combination of the word’s pronunciation and the fact that we don’t see it in print very often that causes us to miss that it is constructed from two opposing Latin roots that we use every day — pre- and post-:

  • pre- (from prae-) meaning “coming before.” It gives us words like prenatal, preindustrial, and prelude.
  • post- (from posterus) meaning “coming after.” It gives us postnatal, postindustrial, and postlude.

Etymologically, preposterous describes something that comes both before and after, which, outside of a Mobius strip, is “contrary to nature,” which is another definition Merriam-Webster gives for the word. It’s an oxymoron, combining roots with opposite meanings — like the word oxymoron itself, which reduces to “keen” + “foolish.”

For what other words have you experienced such a-ha! moments? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Thanksgiving for the origins of this un-preposterous word. You’re right, it’s not that common but really should be considering the times we live in.

    The Latin roots of ‘pre’ and ‘post’ are interesting too. I have used all of them except for ‘postlude’ Andy, and SERIOUSLY doubt I ever will. It (truthfully) sounds like a word to describe someone coming off of a Quaalude high. There are a few chapters in ‘North Country Girl’ where Gay Haubner could have used it, IF it meant that of course.


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