I've been re-reading "Ulysses" and noticed this

Stephen totters, collapses, falls, stunned. He lies prone, his face to the sky

(emphasis mine) and

Stephen, prone, breathes to the stars.

and a little later, Bloom

bends again and undoes the buttons of Stephen's waistcoat

Full text of the novel (massively NSFW in case you don't know): http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4300/4300-h/4300-h.htm

So, according to everything I know, "prone" should mean he was lying face down, but these passages imply he's lying face up.

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    Joyce was just testing his readers to check who was still paying attention.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:51
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    As my AP English teacher used to say, "Always suspect that the author [of the book you're reading] may be at least as smart as you are." So, if you think Joyce didn't understand what he was about as a writer, or was beyond having a joke at the reader's expense, perhaps you could use that gentle reminder.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:58
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    @Robusto - Clearly your AP English teacher didn't read Dan Brown. ') Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 3:10
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    @medica: Touché.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 3:12
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    @Medica I hate that guy.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


This dictionary http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/prone says that prone means

"Lying flat, **especially** face downwards:" 

(my emphasis) - the emphasis implies that it's "not necessarily" face down.

This one http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/prone says

prone: adjective (LYING DOWN)
› formal: lying face down:

which suggests that the simple "lying down (not necessarily face down)" is an informal meaning.

This one http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prone lists two seperate meanings:

a :  having the front or ventral surface downward
b :  lying flat or prostrate

So, that's three different dictionaries suggesting that it's acceptable to use "prone" to simply mean "lying on the ground", not necessarily face down.

I think that Joyce is off the hook on this one.


If you cast Steven Dedalus in The Exorcist, he might lie prone, looking at the stars.

Prone is derived from the Latin pronus: bent forward, leaning forward, bent over. It has meant lying face-down since the 1570s.

However, when it comes to Joyce, I would not care to argue.

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    A wise policy. It would be like arguing with the guy on the bus who's carrying on about aliens and the government. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I'll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff!
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:35
  • @Robusto - A better answer than mine! :D Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:38
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    I checked and the word "supine" appears only once in Ulysses: "What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science? Certain possible inventions of which he had cogitated when reclining in a state of supine repletion to aid digestion" so, not sure whether that helps. The other uses of "prone" are in the sense of "having a tendency", not physical position. Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 9:05

No, Joyce missed this one. Master of language though he was... Nobody can match him. But he's flawed too, he's human.

Lesser flaw: He also missed a chance to have someone having ear wax in Sirens. Considering that he brings up every substance ever to emerge from the human body, he should have caught this.

None of this changes Ulysses being the greatest novel ever.

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