apropos

Apropos of nothing, Zoyander Street (@zoyander) asked me if I’d ever done anything on apropos. Well, I haven’t, but it seems… um… suitable… fitting… to the point… you know, to the purpose.

Which is what apropos is from: French à propos, ‘to the purpose’ or ‘to the plan’ – French propos is from Latin propositum, past participle of proponere, ‘set forth’. So it’s two words in the original. But anyway, nothwithstanding that, inasmuch as we write it as one word, it’s become one word for us now. It just pops in like a couple of firecrackers or a minor éclat of popcorn; it seems appropriate as a single lexeme.

Seems appropriate? Seems like appropriate. It’s almost as though we appropriated it just to have a way to say appropriate while popping in a bit of French – quick frippery for the unprepared. Also, instead of ending stopped short like appropriate, it sustains as it narrows on that final vowel. That vowel, by the way, that diphthong, is one of the good ones for telling what sort of person you’re speaking to: does it begin with the vowel in or (somewhat déclassé), or with the one in above (a bit better), or the one in met (now that’s toffee-nosed)? Does it end with the tongue high in the back (like a colonial) or high in the front (like a nob)? It gives you a way to display your social cachet.

Just don’t be confused by the fact that you can use it two different ways. There’s the way that replaces appropriate, and there’s the way that goes with of to replace in regard to or speaking of. That may not seem to make sense at first, because you wouldn’t say appropriate of. But don’t forget that it’s actually ‘to the point’ or ‘to the purpose’. So saying “That’s very apropos” is very much to the purpose, and saying “Apropos of that question” gets to the point of that question. It’s a nice little bit of apracadapra.

Just don’t use both at the same time. The two most common collocations of apropos in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are very apropos and apropos of nothing, but it would really be to no good purpose to say very apropos of nothing. Unless you were trying to be witty.

But, apropos of wit, you can be a little more pretentious and use the French (put it in italics). You can toss in the phrase à propos des bottes, which would best translate as ‘in regard to boots’ or ‘speaking of boots’ but idiomatically means ‘for no particular reason’ – or, you know, ‘apropos of nothing’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its earliest citation from a letter by Lord Chesterfield: “À propos de bottes, for I am told he always wears his; was his Royal Highness very gracious to you or not?” A nice conversational whiplash, and high-toned to boot. It’s your choice as to which you find more apropos: French boots or English nothings.

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