The Grammarphobia Blog

Time piece

Q: I was listening to you on my iPod the other day when you discussed neologisms on WNYC. This reminded me of a recent email from a South Asian colleague who wanted me to “prepone” a scheduled meeting – that is, move it up in time. He was using “prepone” as the opposite of “postpone.”

A: You’re not the first person to write me about this usage, so it must be in the air!

I don’t see it in the dictionaries I usually consult, but several online references, including MSN Encarta, define it as Indian English meaning to reschedule something for an earlier time. That may explain its use by your colleague.

In fact, a bit of googling suggests that “prepone” is very much in the air. I had 118,000 hits, many of them from South Asians or people puzzled when South Asians used the word.

But believe it or not, this word isn’t quite the neologism you think it to be. The verb “prepone” was around as far back as the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first recorded, “prepone” meant to place in front of or set before – in a more or less literal sense, such as placing something before someone. The word was borrowed from the Latin praeponere (to place in front of).

The first writer to use it in print, as far as we know, was Robert Crowley, a Puritan social reformer who wrote in 1549: “I do prepone and set the Lord alwaye before myne eyes.” The OED has no citations for this usage after 1656.

Then centuries later, just before World War I, “prepone” surfaced again, according to the OED, this time meaning “to bring forward to an earlier time or date. Opposed to postpone.”

The dictionary says the first use of this new incarnation of “prepone” appeared in the New York Times in December 1913. In a letter to the editor, a reader wrote:

“For the benefit mainly of the legal profession in this age of hurry and bustle may I be permitted to coin the word ‘prepone’ as a needed rival of that much revered and oft-invoked standby, ‘postpone.’ “

The word hasn’t been seen much in the US or Britain since the mid-20th century. In recent decades, according to the OED, its use has been “most frequent in Indian English.”

The latest published reference for the word in the OED is from a 2001 article in the Times of India about a decision “to ask schools to prepone their examinations and start summer vacations in April.”

Will “prepone” catch on in the West (after a long postponement)? Only time will tell.

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