Say you’re writing a text for an introductory course, something just to make sure students are prepared for higher education in the subject. You want to use a diction proper to the level, right? Maybe some eidetic imagery? You wouldn’t want to prop up your vocabulary with opaque sesquipedalian escapees from an encyclopaedia. That’s not the proper way to do it. Might make you look like a professor, but won’t make you look like a pro at preparatory communication.
But every so often you’ll get a text, or at least an opening section, that will declare itself propaedeutic. “This course is propaedeutic for the more advanced study,” perhaps – or, as a noun, as in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, “We can pass from this simplified propaedeutic to the problems of the real world.” Simplified except for what you call it.
It’s a word for those who consider teaching to be a bit infra dig; they want to be paedagogical. This is a serious course of study you’re embarking on, as witness the lexically luxuriant luminary who will be Virgil to your Dante (and remember, Dante went through Hell first before getting to Heaven). Switch on your academic propeller beanie; this is just the warm-up act.
It’s an impressive and almost balanced-looking word, propaedeutic. The paed could rotate 180 degrees and look much the same – in fact, write it with the digraph, pæd, and it would look the same. You could spin it like a propeller, and in fact “propaedeutic” sounds a bit like an old prop plane starting up. The p at the very start of propaedeutic would do well to be matched with another d at the end to make the whole word spin, but we just get c, which is literally 1 short of d, so we miss the stem – preparation not finished, I guess.
The pro at the start is the pro that means ‘before’, from Greek προ, which also helps us know it’s proper to start this word with “pro” and not “prop.” The paed is the root you see in words relating to children (from paedagogy or pedagogy to rather less pleasant ones); here, it’s part of a word for ‘education’: παιδευτική paideutiké, whence the eutic as well.
Not a great start to an education to start with a word you need an education to know, though, is it?
Well, it could be worse. It could always call itself cataskeuastic.