Years ago I wrote a piece for Verbatim magazine, lamenting the imprecise use of the prefix pre- when it wasn't required, or when it promised more than it delivered. I was also moderately distressed that dictionaries of the time did not adequately treat pre- words that were appreciably in circulation. Dictionaries often ignored such words altogether, or included them as list words—that is, in long lists of words that share the same prefix and were assumed to be understandable as the sum of their parts and so were not accompanied by definitions.

Thanks mostly to the vast oceans of storage space that the Internet has opened up to dictionary publishers, there's been some progress since then, and a number of words that I found to be inadequately treated in dictionaries (such as predelinquent, preorder, and preowned) are now findable, with definitions, online. The constraint that ruled dictionary makers from the beginning of the print era—that is, the requirement that headword lists, definitions, and examples be sparing and economical—is now finally done away with since cloud servers offer space for the storage of unlimited quantities of words and their definitions, illustrations, and examples. Whatever nostalgia it may provoke, the post-print era has definitely brought with it an improvement in the quality of word reference resources and tools to access them.

I am still a bit disposed (and definitely not predisposed) to peeve about pre- words that don’t really require pre-. (How do you distinguish between sliced and pre-sliced bread?). Lately I have added a new peeve, actually a lexicographer’s lament about words that begin with the complementary prefix post-. These two prefixes share the quality of suggesting a timeline, and the problematic nature of both of them arises when the reader or listener isn’t quite clear on where to land on that timeline, or what is happening there.

Post- is handy, and usually not problematic, when it is followed by a noun and the reader can easily and definitely place that noun in time. When these conditions are met, post- has the useful function of conveying the meaning "after": post-war means "after the war", and as long as you are clear on which war you’re referring to, you have achieved a 50% savings in syllables by using the hyphenated term.

If all post- words were as straightforward as post-war it would be fine to treat them as list words: master the prefix and you’ve mastered its offspring. But the inadequacy of a list of post- words for conveying their meanings is fairly clear from definitions of the prefix post-. Take this one, for example, from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:

a prefix, meaning “behind,” “after,” “later,” “subsequent to,” “posterior to,” occurring originally in loanwords from Latin (postscript), but now used freely in the formation of compound words (post-Elizabethan; postfix; postgraduate; postorbital).

Despite this omnibus definition, the RHUD in fact has a rather lengthy list of post- list words, including postsuppurative (what the heck?) and post-Alexandrine (yeah, but if you’re gonna do that, shouldn’t you give the user an adequate definition of Alexandrine?).

My peeve with many post- compounds is that their second component is sometimes not an eventive noun, or even if it is, we are challenged to place it on a timeline. Or if we can place it on a timeline, there is puzzlement at the fact the event of note has not really ended—so post- often clearly carres a bit more semantic weight than simply “after”.

Take, for example, post-print, which I used above. Has the print era ended? If it had, we would presumably be unable to purchase books, magazines, and newspapers, except in antiquarian shops. A reasonable assumption is that post-print doesn’t mean “after print”. It means “after print on paper ceased to be the default medium of written and symbolic communication”, or perhaps “from a perspective in which paper media have been supplanted by electronic media”. Transparent in meaning? Not at all. So the word should be treated in dictionaries. The post- in post-print doesn’t mean the same thing as the post- in post-war.

When a post- compound is followed by an actual event (post-op), an identifiable period on an abstract timeline (postadolescence) or an influential person or their eponymous adjective (post-Cartesian) we get the gist of what is meant, and we probably don’t need definitions or glosses. However, when post- is followed by the name of a movement, a school of art or thought, or an abstractly conceived period of history, what are we to read into the meaning?

First of all, the speaker or writer imposes a burden on their audience by assuming a great deal of knowledge about the movement, school, or period in question, as well as assuming acceptance of its existence. Secondly, there is considerable ambiguity about whether we are to consider that the named -ism has ended, or still persists and somehow continues to sprinkle its fairy dust over our thought processes.

I don’t think I’m completely alone in peeving about post- being used in this fuzzy way. I see that the Spectator’s excellent film critic Deborah Ross has a similar problem in her recent review of the film “Elle,” where she says:

Elle has been described as ‘a rape revenge comedy’, which seems unlikely, and also as ‘post-feminist’, which is likely as, in my experience, that simply means anything goes so long as you acknowledge that feminism has happened.

So in an ideal world—perhaps even in the post-print world we inhabit—dictionaries would make room to alert us to the meanings of compounds like post-feminism, post-punk and post-structuralist that suggest an enduring influence from a school of thought whose zenith has passed but that still exerts influence.

A newcomer to the post- scene is post-truth, which is used to characterize the era we now live in. Here dictionaries are on their game, and are even alerting the media to their cleverness by publicizing their newly-added definitions. Here’s one from Oxford dictionaries:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

To this I say: pretty good job, Oxford! The only deficiency in the definition is that it does not make reference to the contemporary climate in which the term has arisen. Surely, however, we are not at a unique point in history “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Galileo and Darwin had a taste of that, as well as many others.

I hope that other lexicographers will take a closer look at post- words that currently languish on long lists, without definitions. Finding definitions when you need them is a great benefit to those who might otherwise want to move their pre-drinks engagement forward on their calendars.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 1st, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Excellent points,Orin. Timelines are almost by definition fuzzy. I wrote a book whose subtitle mentioned poets in "the late days of modernism," and a reviewer asked whether modernism was even still a thing during the time I was talking about. Seems we'd have to take a poll.
A couple of side-notes:
(1) At this late date, "prewar" and "postwar" still refer, for most people, to World War II. But "antebellum" always refers to the Civil War. Why?
(2) Just before the guests arrive for a dinner party, my wife asks me to slice some bread. I tell her we have some pre-sliced bread, but she says that's not good enough. Redundancy or linguistic precision?
Wednesday May 3rd, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Jan. regarding your points:

1) "antebellum" is indeed odd. If you look at it's NGram, it doesn't seem to really take off in usage till the 1960s (perhaps when historiography about the Civil War got a boost from the centenary). Nearly all OED cites for it are American, and apply to the Civil War. So I think it's a case of the word simply sucking up any other semantic space that might have been available to it for a single sense.

2) one could quibble with "pre-sliced bread" when "sliced bread" means the same thing, but I see the instinct of precision in your utterance, and it is shorter than "we have some bread already sliced." So I'll give that a pass.
Thursday May 4th, 5:57 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
I have trouble with "pre-existing condition," but can cut it some slack in medical insurance boiler-plate.
Once, when I was buying glasses at an optometry store, I was told that I would be "pre-screened." My questioning when the actual screening would take place was met with silence and blank stares.

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