A word that sputters and splutters, especially with the aid of the aspiration we put on /p/ (and /t/ and /k/) at the start of a syllable. Hold your hand in front of your face as you say it and you’ll feel what I mean: that double puff. Say that /p/ with a puff by itself and it’s a quick expression of distaste and derision, the sort of noise I’ve been known to make if someone suggests shopping at Wal-Mart. Hamlet used it: “And smelt so? Pah!” So now put that popping p in position, say, to put some popular poppycock in its place: “Peter Piper? Pick a peck of pickled peppers? Pah! Preposterous! He couldn’t pull a poppy!”
This word is also helped by having a secundus paeon rhythm (like impossible and polygyny), which gives a little step up into the second syllable, where we can stretch out that vowel – the same one we make when someone’s ruined our cake: aww! – and then stumble it into a two-step stop, with that liquid /r/ like wading into a lake. And of course the written shape of it adds to the effect: it’s long, which allows for more expressiveness (as in speech too); it has those holes in the middle o and o; and every letter in it except for t and u shows up twice, and all mixed up and jumbled. (Indeed, from those letters you can make more anagrams than I even see the point of dumping on you here!)
And it’s that out-of-place, out-of-sequence nature that is central to this word. If you look at its bits, you will surely see pre and post, and in this case that’s not accidental. Prae “before” and posterus “later” form the original Latin word, and it meant first “in the wrong order” (or, as we might say, “back-to-front”) – and the associated and metaphorical meanings readily followed. Now we don’t use it to mean “out of sequence”, really; the main thing that’s described as preposterous is an idea or a notion. It may be that it just sounds preposterous or seems preposterous – common collocations – but it may just as readily be absolutely, simply, utterly, or totally preposterous. Ah, listen to the rhythm of those: totally preposterous – two measures of 4/4 with a rest at the end of the second. Simply preposterous – two measures of 3/4. But absolutely preposterous! That’s a 2+3+3 rhythm, if all the beats are the same length, which they might not be. Oh, but what a preposterous path would that take us down?
Well, in fact, sometimes we need the preposterous. Sometimes we need to turn things around! Sometimes we need a bit of Dave Brubeck in the rhythm of our lives. Back when I was a freshly minted PhD, I wrote a letter that was published in TDR, a theatre studies journal, titled “In Praise of Preposterous Propositions.” “Extreme propositions may be virtually indefensible, but they are remarkably provocative,” I wrote. “We implicitly recognize that preposterous statements are the most interesting by returning to them in art and theory (analyzing dadaists, futurists, and so forth), but how rarely do we have the nerve to say something under our own bylines that has a good chance of being outrageously wrong.”
Now, admittedly, I’m not raving around saying insanely inane things just for the heck of it. But it turns out that writing a whole book of poems about grammar and romantic entanglements is so odd that no agent or publisher knows what to do with it, even if they enjoy it. And of course tasting words somewhat as one tastes wines is not everyone’s idea of normal behaviour either. I’m quite sure that some linguists think my fascination with phonaesthetics is preposterous. And that’ll hold me for now.
Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for suggesting preposterous.