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prolegomenon

Printable Version
Pronunciation: pro-lê-gah-mÍ-nahn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Preface, introduction, prefatory observation, preamble to a scholarly book or monograph.

Notes: Here is a noun that we almost never encounter in the singular; the plural form, prolegomena, in the sense of "introductory observations" is preferred. However, the plural form is almost four times more likely to be taken as a singular noun than as a plural form according to a Google search. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary now concedes the plural might be prolegomenas. Be that as it may, either form comes with three adjectives to choose from: prolegomenal, prolegomenary, and prolegomenous.

In Play: Today's word is most at home as the preamble of a scholarly work: "Hetty Wein's book on the harmful effects of alcohol has a prolegomenon by an actual dipsomaniac." However, let's bring it out of its academic closet and use it figuratively in sentences like this: "Firing Gladys Friday was just a prolegomenon for the new president—he then wiped out the entire department!"

Word History: Today's Good Word was taken from Greek prolegomenon, the neuter participle of prolegein "to say beforehand", used as a noun. This Greek word is made up of pro "before" + legein "to speak" + -menos, a participial ending. The root of the Greek verb legein turns up in many borrowed English words, including lexicon and lecture. Because it came from a word exhibiting a PIE ablaut pair, leg-/log-, we also find it in logic, logistics and all those words ending on -logy from the Greek word logos "word, speech, reason". Perhaps the most interesting derivation of this word is the purely English leech, which comes from Old English læce "physician". The connection must have been with the predecessors of physicians who resorted to leeches, who relied on magic incantations to cure ailments. (Let's now thank, without prolegomena, Eric Berntson for his recommendation of today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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