Snobbery seems to be costing the world a useful word.
While most English speakers in South Asia are familiar with the word prepone, its use will still draw blank looks elsewhere. Even in India, many well-read, well-travelled intellectuals wouldn’t be caught dead using it, unless in jest. But there isn’t really any other word in the English language that can qualify as a respectable synonym.
For the uninitiated, prepone means to bring something forward to an earlier date or time. Or very simply, it is the opposite of postpone.
The word has been a part of Indian English for decades, but it is shunned in many formal settings. It creeps into the occasional newspaper article, but is largely absent from books. In high school, my English teachers never failed to emphasise the lowly status of the word. The other day, I asked a group of friends—an editor at a publishing house, a theatre actor, a marketing expert, and a college professor—if they ever wrote prepone in work emails? The answer was a definitive no. When I used it at an upscale restaurant in south Delhi, my friend could barely hide his smirk.
Sadly, prepone’s lack of acceptance in highbrow Indian circles has clearly tarnished its chances of gaining international recognition.
And that’s part of a larger problem—Indian English is as storied, authentic and valid an offshoot as American English, Hong Kong English or Jamaican English, but we don’t celebrate it as such.
“I feel there is an obvious prejudice against Indian English, which is also felt by educated users of Indian English,” Hany Babu, a professor at Delhi University, told Quartz. “When an educated Indian user tends to use an ‘Indianism,’ she often makes it a point to let the listener know that she is aware of the fact that it is a usage peculiar to Indian English by saying something like ‘as we say in Indian English’ or something to that effect.”
If these prepone naysayers can’t embrace Indian English, maybe they should take note of this surprising fact: Prepone exists in Oxford English Dictionary (OED), aka, “the definitive record of the English language.”
According to the dictionary, the word is mostly attributed to Indian English, but it was first used in the 16th century, long before English spread in India. At that point, it meant “to place in front of.” It comes from the Latin praeponere.
The first person to use it in print, according to the OED, was Robert Crowley, a Puritan social reformer who wrote in 1549: “I do prepone and set the Lord alwaye before myne eyes.”
After the mid-1600s, there is no record of the word for nearly three centuries. It resurfaced before World War One, and this time it had shorn its Latin origins.
“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,'” a reader wrote in the New York Times (paywall) in December of 1913.
The word’s use seems to have more or less disappeared from the West in more recent decades, but it has been wholeheartedly embraced by South Asians.
To repeat a hoary, old cliche, language constantly evolves, and newly-minted words are essential to its survival. Imagine, if we had not accepted neologisms such as “selfie” or “microblogging” today? It is a travesty that words that are significantly less useful than prepone are gaining global popularity. (I’m thinking of “amazeballs” and “chillax,” just to name two.)
It is time we do the English language a favour, and give prepone its deserved moment in the sun.
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