‘preposterous’, or ‘having first what should be coming after’



preposterous: contrary to nature, reason or sense; absurd; ridiculous




The adjective preposterous is from Latin praeposterus, meaning reversed, inverted, perverted, distorted, absurd, unreasonable, etc.

This Latin adjective is composed of the adverb prae, in front, before, and the adjective posterus, coming after, following, next, so that its literal sense is next (placed) first, having first what should be coming after.

(Therefore, like oxymoron and eggcorn, preposterous is autological, that is to say, it has the property it denotes.)

The English adjective is first recorded in A booke called in latyn Enchiridion militis christiani, and in englysshe the manuell of the christen knyght replenysshed with moste holsome preceptes, made by the famous clerke Erasmus of Roterdame, to the whiche is added a newe and meruaylous profytable preface (London, 1533), the translation apparently made by the Bible translator and Protestant martyr William Tyndale (1494-1536) of the guidebook on how to live a Christian life while avoiding formal observances, written in Latin in 1501 by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536):

We preposterous estemers of thinges make moost of suche thynges whiche by them selfe are of no value.

A note explains:

Preposterous is settynge behynd that that shold be before.

The book also denounces

the preposterous & wronge iugement of the comen people which amōge vertues esteme those to be of moste great value and chefest whiche be of the lowest sorte : and amonge vyces most sore [= sorely] hateth and abhorreth those moste small fautes and tryfles and so contrary wyse.

Similarly, The Arte of English Poesie (London, 1589), probably written by the English author and literary critic George Puttenham (1529-90), contains the following:

Ye haue another manner of disordered speach, when ye misplace your words or clauses and set that before which should be behind, ‘et è conuerso’, we call it in English prouerbe, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it the Preposterous, and if it be not too much vsed is tollerable inough, and many times scarce perceiueable, vnlesse the sence be thereby made very absurd.
Your misplacing and preposterous placing is not all one in behauiour of language, for the misplacing is alwaies intollerable, but the preposterous is a pardonable fault, and many times giues a pretie grace vnto the speech. We call it by a common saying to set the carte before the horse.

The adjective was also used to mean, of an animal, having parts reversed in position. For example, in The vanity of dogmatizing, or, Confidence in opinions manifested in a discourse of the shortness and uncertainty of our knowledge, and its causes (London, 1661), the Church of England clergyman Joseph Glanvill (1636-80) wrote:

Our Eyes, like the preposterous Animal’s, are behind us; and our Intellectual motions retrograde. We adhere to the determinations of our fathers, as if their opinions were entail’d on us as their lands.

Reginald Scot (died 1599) used preposterous in its current sense in The discouerie of witchcraft (London, 1584):

(1886 reprint)
Dreames in the dead of the night are commonlie preposterous and monstrous; and in the morning when the grosse humors be spent, there happen more pleasant and certeine dreames, the bloud being more pure than at other times.

In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave recorded the French adjective prepostere and verb preposterer, now obsolete, which he defined respectively as:

– Preposterous, vnorderlie, wrong, ouerthwart, altogether from the purpose.
– To place or set preposterously; to disorder, or turne arsiuarsie [= arsy-versy]; to put the cart before the horse.

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