English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A ‘post-’ post

Q: I’ve been struck by how often the prefix “post-” has been used lately: “post-religion,” “post-truth,” “post-contemporary,” and of course “postmodern” as well as “post-postmodern.” What do you think?

A: Yes, the prefix “post-” gets a workout these days, but it’s been a workhorse for centuries. A lot of the early uses are now obsolete, though, and we wouldn’t be surprised if many of the new ones joined them.

English borrowed the prefix in the late 14th century from Latin, where post- was attached to verbs, participles, and other verbal derivatives, as in postpōnere (to put off), postpartor (heir), and postgenitus (begotten).

The earliest English example for the prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a manuscript, written in the middle to late 1300s, about the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

“God … enspired him of an orisoun, / To seyn at his post-comoun” (“God … inspired a prayer for him to say at his post-communion”). The post-communion is a prayer that follows communion.

The use of “post-” is apparently more popular with English speakers than it was with ancient Romans.

“In English,” the OED says, “the prefix is used more generally than in Latin, especially in the prepositional relation” (that is, as used in terms like “post-puberty,” “post-Elizabethan,” and “post-Chomskyan”).

Originally, “post-” was used with words of Latin origin, such as “post-communion” (from commūnio, sharing), but the prefix broke away from its classical roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the appearance of such terms as “post-talmudical” (1659), “post-law” (1663), “post-noon” (1686), and “post-breakfast” (1791).

The usage grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to OED citations, with hundreds of the prefixed terms showing up. Here’s a small sample:

“post-Kantian” (1812), “post-resurrection (1839), “post-election” (1851), “post-Hegelian” (1865), “post-Christmas” (1871), “post-Renaissance” (1874), “post-conquest” (1880), “post-flu” (1918), “post-surrealist” (1938), “post-crash” (1930), “post-game” (1934),  “post-bop” (1955), “post-cold war” (1962), “post-partisan” (1962), “post-pill” (1968), “post-orgasm” (1973),  “post-everything” (1976), and “post-glasnost” (1987).

Is “post-” used more now than in the past? Not according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks n-grams (character sequences that represent words or strings of words) in material printed from 1500 to 2008.

A search for the term “post” used as a prefix suggests that it’s being used notably less now than in the middle and late 1800s, though more than a few decades ago.

In fact, the examples you cite aren’t all that new either, with the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century: “post-modern” (1865), “post-contemporary” (1917), “post-religion” (1972), “post-truth” (1989), and “post-postmodern” (1991).

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2012 that mentions the recency illusion, which the linguist Arnold Zwicky defines as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

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