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In common English, I understand “preposterous” to mean abusrd/ridiculous/unlikely etc.

The Latin literal translation, as I understand it, is to put something the wrong way round (such as a cart before a horse).

When we use the term “preposterous”, are we trying to imply literally that something is backwards? Or is it a more indirect meaning of simply being illogical?

I hope that question makes sense. An analogous example might be the term “regression model.” Translated literally, it means returning to a prior state. But when we have regression models in business we aren’t literally modeling something that does this. It’s just a metaphor derived from one instance of the model (of how human height regresses to the mean despite hereditary factors).

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  • What do you mean by "imply literally" and "indirect meaning"?
    – alphabet
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 19:24
  • I've done my best to explain with the example but maybe I'm unable to convey what I mean any other way. Sorry. Commented May 7, 2023 at 19:57
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    The original ass-backwards... Commented May 7, 2023 at 22:49
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    'When we use the term “preposterous”, are we trying to imply literally that something is backwards?' I doubt that many people, even those who use rather than read the word, have much idea about the Latin derivation. The metaphor involved is a dead one. Commented May 8, 2023 at 18:09
  • @TinfoilHat: You mean bass-ackwards.
    – Drew
    Commented May 8, 2023 at 20:23

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I think etymonline explains very helpfully what it means both literally and figuratively:

1540s, "contrary to nature, reason, or common sense," from Latin praeposterus "absurd, contrary to nature, inverted, perverted, in reverse order," literally "before-behind" (compare topsy-turvy, cart before the horse), from prae "before" + posterus "subsequent, coming after," from post "after".

The sense gradually shaded into "foolish, ridiculous, stupid, absurd." The literal meaning "reversed in order or arrangement, having that last which ought to be first" (1550s) is now obsolete in English.

In a way you are right, it can mean backwards in the sense of 'the wrong way', not in the natural order of things, and all this IS included in the meaning of absurd (see definitions of M-W and Dict.com). But as Etymonline says, it is now only metaphorically used.

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