I was reading Hal Foster’s “Preposterous Timing,” a review of a couple of art history books, when I hit this sentence: “Both of the books under review propose historical connections that are provocatively ‘preposterous’: that is, they link works of art from ‘before and after modernity’, the premodern and the postmodern.” (Footnote: “I borrow the term ‘preposterous’ from the Dutch art historian Mieke Bal, whose Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999) is an early instance of this interest in anachronism.”) This is one of those things I doubtless used to know but had forgotten, though the etymology is so transparent it’s a wonder how I managed to forget it; to quote the OED (Third Edition, updated March 2007): “classical Latin praeposterus placed in the wrong order, inverted, unseasonable, wrong-headed, perverse (< prae– pre- prefix + posterus later, next[…]) + –ous suffix. Compare Middle French prepostere placed in a wrong and unjust order (1462[…]), Italian prepostero placed in the wrong order (a1498).” In other words, arsy-versy.


  1. Fascinating. The etymology is pretty obvious now that I see it laid out, but I never stopped to think about it before.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    A music-history example might be Morrisey’s contention that Mick Jagger stole everything he knows from David Johansen. I see that the Bal book has inspired a scholarly journal article titled “Quoting Mieke Bal’s Navel: Contemporary Theory, Preposterous Religion.”

  3. It’s an excellent word in at least two ways:
    1. You can know it for years and then have that “aha” moment about the origin. (I don’t recall just when I had that moment, but I know I enjoyed it.)
    2. When you call some piece of nonsense “preposterous”, you can give vent to your exasperated feelings in a great explosive puff of air on the stressed second syllable.

  4. Thing is, you knew what it means now before you knew what it meant then. Putting the cart before the horse there, eh?

  5. What could be more preposterous than confusing art history with art? In art there is no anachronism. See Malraux, Andre; and Dylan, Bob; and everybody else besides, like Homer, Luke, Ringo, and John.

  6. Who’s Mick Jagger?

  7. One of the first German jokes I learned is based on a preposterous pun: “F: Was ist die juristische Defintion von Homosexualität ? A: Die Hintanstellung des eigenen Vorteils“.
    Learnèd explanation of the jokiness: Hintanstellung = “postponement / reduction of the priority of” = “putting back”. The etymology of the German word is more obvious to a German speaker than that of the English word might be to an English speaker. The German word clearly means “putting (towards the) back”, and is the noun form of hintanstellen, where stellen and hinten are ordinary free-standing words (hintan is a “towards-behind” form of hinten “behind”). But “postponement” is not based on any free-standing “pone” or “post” words.
    Similarly, Vorteil = “advantage”, but looks like “the front part” (der vordere Teil). So the answer in the joke means “putting one’s front part (at someone’s) behind”.
    I hope I haven’t already related this joke here. It’s one of the very few in my repertoire, and each of them is a bit weird.

  8. Huh. Duden sez that hintan originally meant von hier weg = “hence”, but from earliest times has been interpreted as being a combined form of hint = hinten and an – which is its meaning today.

  9. Yes, I understood the jokey meaning at first glance. Just to confirm, is the non-jokey meaning ‘The postponement of one’s advantage’?

  10. The German phrase has all the accoutrements of legalese. Since I don’t do English legalese, I’ll just have to say what it means: “to put aside considerations of personal advantage for the time being”. My use of “postpone” was misleading, I now see.

  11. Misleading, because the German phrase does not suggest or require that any “advantage” already exists – so there is no advantage that could be postponed. What is to be postponed is any (present) undertaking motivated by a desire to obtain some future advantage.

  12. “To refrain for the time being from acting out of interest”.

  13. “putting one’s front part (at someone’s) behind”.
    there is a proverb in my language, sounding on the contrary to this saying, ar khormoigooroo urd khormoigoo nokhokh, to patch one’s front side(of a dress) by its back side, it applies to many situations when the measures taken are temporary and not solving the problem, sounds very funny, the degree of destituteness that originated the saying and still the need felt to “keep up appearances” in that situation, very such a human impulse i guess, though surely it was not that literally occurred situation perhaps, just one perhaps started saying that to show the absurdity of doing so

  14. i get of course that double entendre something in the german saying or GS’s explanation of it, this is just to not sound completely like dumb to cite and respond to it, which though occurred to me in some time after reading that and writing my comment i admit
    but the meaning of putting something’s priority towards later is also can be found in a popular proverb which i will save for some other occasion then

  15. I like that skirt saying: “to patch the front with the back”. Or: keeping up appearances at all costs.

  16. At 2:15 in “Rabbit Seasoning” you can hear Daffy Duck emit a fine, spittle-flecked “This is preposterous!”

  17. Trond Engen says

    I like it to. My grandmother used to say Fint ska det væra, om så halve ræva henger ute!. “High standards, even if half the arse is showing!” (Yes, I understand that the dichotomy makes little sense to those born after 1980 or so.) I didn’t realize until now that the origin might be “patching the front with the back”.

  18. jeff del col says

    But Daffy’s best sloppy plosive has to be “You’re “DeTH-PICK able!”

  19. I’ve occasionally used the opposite, “postpreterite”, to mean something that is the opposite of preposterous, something that is expected and obvious to the point of banality. Some movie and novel plots, for example.

  20. Although I am NOT a translator of German (but of English and LatAm Spanish, the latter my native and everyday language), based on my limited knowledge of German on the one hand, and my familiarity with legalese on the other, I would dare to suggest the following rendering of @Grumbly Stu’s joke (in the no-joke sense, if you get my drift):
    “temporarily forgo to assert my interest”.
    Or something like it. Maybe.

  21. @languagehat: Forgot to bring out in my earlier comment, a precious nugget I found in your entry:
    “it’s a wonder how I managed to forget it”. The very concept that one can actively contribute to forget something, was particularly captivating. Thank you. I may yet store the expression and use it, hoping that I don’t manage to forget it! 🙂

  22. “Rabbit Seasoning” has a special place in my heart because it includes the bit in which Daffy, running through the lines of dialogue a second time to figure out how Bugs got him that time, says: “Aha! Pronoun trouble!”
    And this is doubly special to me because it was in googling the phrase “pronoun trouble” to find out which cartoon it came from that I stumbled upon the Hattery for the first time.

  23. In that case, Daffy Duck is the official Languagehat Cartoon Character.

  24. Trond Engen says

    managed to forget
    Norw. klarte å glemme is utterly unmarked in the same circumstances. It’s not so much about actively contributing as it’s a mildly self-deprecating admission of a deficiency. It can also be used with other self-inflicted misfortunes: klarte å komme for seint til toget, klarte å bruke alle pengene på is. I would think it’s another Western European cross-calque.

  25. Trond Engen says

    I managed to screw up my html codes again. Sorry!

  26. @Trond Engen “managed to (whatever)”.
    Yes, of course you are right, that’s what I meant and I did not get it across with the right words. I did manage to mess up my comment :), didn’t I?. But please, please, do translate the Norwegian expressions, my linguistic skills don’t stretch that much…

  27. I managed to screw up my html codes again. Sorry!
    Actually, you didn’t; they looked fine. I just retyped them (<i> and the rest) and refreshed, and all the itals appeared properly. I have no idea why yours didn’t work.

  28. marie-lucie says

    I can’t believe I managed to forget X
    I find this sentence quite unremarkable. For instance, when I am away from my house I am very uncomfortable if I don’t have my keys in the right pocket of my coat, or if (while coatless) none of the clothes I am wearing have pockets in which to keep my keys. To my knowledge I have only lost keys once, when the keys I ended up with in my coat pocket were not my own but those of a car I had rented (and that was not the only time when I had started out with two sets of keys in the same pocket). In that situation I could very well have said “I can’t believe I managed to forget my keys” – almost as if I had deliberately made such a stupid mistake, since I was normally so careful of my keys and so used to having them in my pocket.

  29. marie-lucie’s last comment brings up a particular, familiar way many people think about themselves, and account for what they and others do. In general, “thinking in a certain way” has been called framing, and some social scientists analyze it using frame analysis:

    “Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea.” [Kuypers]

    The particular kind of framing (or conceptual intrastructure) behind the expression “managed to forget” involves thinking of oneself as a assortment of agents, or agencies, or behavioral tendencies. There is one agency responsible for imposing the behavioral rule “be careful of the keys, keep them in the right coat pocket”. It imposes the rule on another agency, a careless and unruly one.
    Depending on the moral importance of the rule to the person involved, certain accounts (“excuses”) are available when the rule is infringed. An unruly agency can be invoked as “trying to circumvent it”. For instance, if the rule is “don’t drink beer before 5 o’clock in the evening”, the unruly agent can be accused of “managing not to know what time it is”, so the person may start drinking at 4 o’clock, and as time goes on even earlier. The person trying to give an account of his actions sometimes acts as if he were chairman (yet another agent !) of a debate in parliamentary committee between parties with conflicting interests.
    This notion of “framing” may seem to some to be making a mountain out of a molehill – “we’re just human and fallible, not an assortment of deliberative or scheming agencies”. But what of the little devil and little angel shown to be tempting us ? Consider, too, that Freud’s “ego, superego, id” explanation of how-people-function seemed plausible to a lot of people for many decades – an explanation involving the secularization of Judeo-Christian themes (themselves older and more widespread than Judaism and Christianity) as “interior personality structures”. In L’être et le néant (1943), Sartre does a fantastically lucid job of demolishing psychoanalytic framing.
    Note that I am not making a claim to the effect that these agencies are “real”. I am merely pointing out that we take rhetorical recourse to agencies and tendencies. They serve to “explain” our behavior to ourselves and others.
    By the way, I grabbed the word “intrastructure” above from L’être et le néant, as applied there to the “cogito” préréflexif. At first I thought it was a misprint, but no – Sartre only uses “intrastructure”, never “infrastructure” as far as I’ve noticed. Well, after all he doesn’t do layered models.

  30. Sartre’s framing scheme involves things like mauvaise foi. If you are not averse to being blown out of the water by a serious, lucid argument, check out his demonstration (p. 100 of the Gallimard paperback) that there’s not much to choose between mauvaise foi and sincérité:

    Ainsi, la structure essentielle de la sincérité de diffère pas de celle de la mauvaise foi, puisque l’homme sincère se constitue comme ce qu’il est pour ne l’être pas. C’est ce qui explique cette vérité reconnue par tous, qu’on peut devenir de mauvaise foi à force d’être sincère. Ce serait, dit Valéry, le cas de Stendhal.

  31. That quote is not the demonstration, but only a summing-up.

  32. I’ve never read even The Red And The Black, so I thought I would search the internet for second-hand details about Valéry on Stendhal. In what appears to be a topic posed for an examination essay, we are referred to an essay on Stendhal “où Valéry dénonce la ‘comédie de la sincérité’ inhérente à l’autobiographie”. Well, comedy is supposed to be amusing. A self-deprecating smirk at having “managed to forget my keys” is funny.

  33. “Managed to forget my keys” is smirkworthy partly because the self-deprecation in it is markedly sincere.

  34. That’s a lot of theorising for one expression, Grumbly.
    “Manage to” is funny in English because it implies planning, determination and adroitness in achieving a certain goal. Using it with “forget one’s keys” is humorous because of its incongruity, suggesting that the totally undesired result was due to planning, determination and adroitness, when it was actually due to nothing more than bumbling stupidity.

  35. You call it theorising, I call it commenting on familiar phenomena. Perhaps the particular kind of commenting is not familiar to you, but it’s hardly newfangled. I am in a similar position here sometimes when people go on about linguistic matters.
    It’s funny that I managed to avoid a reductionist argument to the effect that a thing is “actually” a different thing. I wonder if this was due to stupidity, or perhaps cunning.
    One of the reasons I’ve been going on about L’E&N is to give marie-lucie the idea that it might be worth reading. She wrote once that she started reading it, but couldn’t continue. I’m fascinated by it – is that OK ?

  36. great comments on managing forgetting, I love GS’s kind of theorizing about simple things, makes them so much interesting
    in my language managed to forget sounds funny too martaj dongoson, bc it sounds something really unforgettable or inexcusable to forget and one still managed to forget it, dongox is a word meaning temporary measures to hold things together, so it’s opposite to the complexity of managing, so it’s not exactly manage to forget, but as if like did a sloppy work on managing to forget “was almost to forget” sounds funny too, martax shaxsan, sounds literally was on the brink of forgetting cz in the expression itself there is felt one’s relief that one didn’t forget
    martchixsan sounds regrettably cz one forgot completely, it’s a a simlar construction with the japanese wasurete shimau wasuretchau
    i thought this kind of double verbs constructions , with the second verb adding some kind of emotional weight to the action found in japanese similarly to mongolian, some like natural feature of these languages, cz any verb can be modified in the similar ways, haven’t noticed them in russian and english up until now

  37. if the thing to forget is something negative, then there is really an affirmative manage to forget expression, a bad memory for example, martaj chadsan, chadax means could, so one can say xiij chadsan, yavj chadsan etc ( could do, could go , maybe there are such double verbs constructions in english too, though it doesnt sound that emotionally charged like)
    so it’s kind of like straightforward, not contrasting manage to forgetting as in B’s explanation, and i think maybe that’s the difference in thinking, at least in thinking funny, between westerners and the east, i always protest everywhere online where i go when some ironic sarcastic joke happens to be felt inappropriate by me, people think of me as stupid and stubborn i guess, yesterday for example i read about a royal hospital nurse who was found dead over a prank by some radio program hosts about pregnancy in royal family, maybe she was stupid, or maybe it was her way of thinking that excludes pranks, too bad, and the way to choose between life and shame too, too maximalist and maybe natural for the people of the eastern origins
    the dangers of irony and sarcasm i always protest against so, cz it hurts usually more than amuses

  38. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: so you want me to read L’Etre et le Néant. Please! Different strokes for different folks! I would not ask you to read historical grammars, fascinating though I find them.
    Valéry dénonce la ‘comédie de la sincérité’ inhérente à l’autobiographie”. Well, comedy is supposed to be amusing.
    Here la comédie is not used in the theatrical sense (but the word used to be about theatre in general, as in the name of the French national theatre company la Comédie-Française). If a small child tries to use a temper tantrum to get their way, savvy parents will tell the child to stop faire la comédie. Or if someone seems to overreact and “carries on” in a way that others perceive to be insincere and exaggerated, those others will recount the incident as X nous a fait toute une comédie, something like ‘X put on quite a show’. I am sure that is what Valéry has in mind: Stendhal is putting on a show (like Rousseau or Anaïs Nin, for instance) under the (probably sincere and unconscious) cover of humbly telling all.

  39. marie-lucie: so you want me to read L’Etre et le Néant.
    No, only “to give marie-lucie the idea that it might be worth reading.”

  40. I am sure that is what Valéry has in mind: Stendhal is putting on a show (like Rousseau or Anaïs Nin, for instance) under the (probably sincere and unconscious) cover of humbly telling all.
    Yes. But Sartre’s point is that sincerity and bad faith have essentially the same structure. He cites Valéry’s criticism of Stendhal because he finds it problematic. Since then we have become accustomed to sit back and enjoy any show, no matter what the motives of the producer.

  41. Nothing you could say would induce me to give Sartre’s philosophy another try, I’m afraid.

  42. I suppose most people regard L’e&n as a work of philosophy, and feel they have to approach (or flee) it as a serious big deal. For my part I treat it as an entertainment, “An evening with Jean-Paul” where this dude holds forth lucidly, usefully and elegantly while I munch popcorn. I particularly like the little stories he tells: la jeune coquette, for example, or ce garçon de café.

  43. Dammit, you should be munching choucroute not popcorn.

  44. It’s a small theater, the concession stand carries only popcorn and freedom fries.

  45. Whaddayaknow, it says here that Sartre’s title “derives” from a loose translation by Voltaire of that Hamlet monologue:

    Demeure, il faut choisir
    Et passer a l’instant
    De la vie a la mort
    Et de l’être au néant

  46. How odd that Shakespeare managed to anticipate Sartre.

  47. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: How odd that Shakespeare managed to anticipate Sartre.
    Shakespeare had the good sense to keep the discussion short.

  48. And possibly short-change the listener. Anyway, my remark was merely intended to round up things as they started, with the obscurious expression “managed to”.
    Brevity is the ketchup of life – a little goes a long way. Still, some people pour it on everything.

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