Word of the Week, prosaic

Take my hand; come with me; let’s take an (abbreviated) tour of my bookcase.

To our left we see Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, The Millennium Trilogy, The Snow Child, Dracula, The Name of The Rose, even, ahem Twilight

And what do these titles have in common? They are all prose and therefore, by definition, prosaic.

Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry too: Browning, Marvell, Shakespeare. But most of my reading is prose and (most) is great. But the connotations of the adjectival form of the word, prosaic, are so strongly negative! It is almost synonymous with banal to suggest how dull, uninspired and mundane something is. How terribly unfair! I love prose; prose writing can be as just as enchanting and magical and wonderful and, yes, lyrical as poetry.

Anyway, rant over, let’s look at this word.

Prosaic. That little collection of vowels at the end which I love. The /eī/ followed by the sudden drawing back of lips to articulate the /ī/. It is such a precise, careful enunciation, possibly reflecting the use of prose to create precise and careful meanings; whereas lyricism conveys impressions and feelings….?

The etymology is interesting too. It derives – as so many of my Words of the Week do – from Latin: provotere is “to turn forwards” and its past participle is proversus, “turned forwards”. So is it truly “straight forward” or “forward facing”, perhaps even “looking to the future”?

What a strange word to have come to refer to a style of writing!

Or is it?

The novel is the form of writing most obviously written in prose – yes I know drama can be; I know there are analyses of Moby Dick that have identified pages written in perfect Shakespearean iambic pentameter; I know verse novels do exist – but as a rule it’s pretty accurate. And the word novel is derived from the word for newness, novelty. So prose – and therefore prosaic writing – is forward facing, looking to the future, creating novelty, innovative?

And instead of this very positive ideal of writing, the word – presumably as a result of nothing more than prejudice and ignorance and habit – it means little more than “banal”.

On a side question…. Is there a difference between the two words? I think so. Banal to me has a greater connection with the idea of being valueless and worthless; prosaic suggests perhaps a greater value but an uninspired expression.


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