Sometimes we seem to just use words over and over again until their meaning is lost. It gets minimalized, dumbed down, and/or exaggerated. Such is the case for the word preposterous. It is a word that is usually employed in the midst of an emotional conversation, and tends, therefore, to be the product of more heat than light.
Preposterous is a Latin word formed by the merging of the prefix prae and posterous. Posterous, in Latin, relates to the word posterior, being “back end” or “hind.” Therefore, the 16th century word means, crudely, “ass-backwards.” I think we all get the meaning of that crude phrase which indicates that we have something in reverse order. It is confused, irregular, or contrary.
Thus, it isn’t hard to see that the contemporary use of the word preposterous is more than an exclamation. It is a judgment that the comment preceding it is totally irrational. It doesn’t qualify as a legitimate explanation of what has preceded it. In a conversation, it should mean more than “I disagree.” To the contrary, the exclaimer is saying, “what you have just said is not a legitimate response to the point I was making. It defies everything that an intelligent person would say in this circumstance.”
The Cambridge University Press goes a step further and says that it is something that is not to be believed. In other words, it is a lie.
It is understandable why this singular word can, therefore, add heat to an already-existing disagreement. The person about whom the speaker is responding is the subject of an accusation. It has slipped from an academic argument to a personal statement about the opponent.
The more common use of the word is by people describing a situation which is “mind-blowing” or utterly ridiculous. I found this comment in one article I was researching about the word preposterous:
After x-rays were discovered in 1895, there were some PREPOSTEROUS reactions. For example, London merchants sold x-ray-proof underwear.
I think that’s probably as good an example of the current use of the term that we can find. It demonstrates the outlandish response to something that has a perfectly logical answer. Instead of depending upon science, the person making the dumb reaction has moved to a purely emotional response. (Actually, given the recent installation of scanning devices in airports, it may not be as preposterous an idea as it was when the reviewer identified it.)
I mention it, however, because it demonstrates the point I made at the beginning of this blog. Over time, words can take on new meanings and uses which are far from the intent when the word was first used.
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