It was a few years ago that a new spice shop opened near where I lived here in Raleigh. For the first month, the owner was giving tastings of their most popular spices and requesting that customers rank their favorites. I was asked to choose between two kinds of salts: one very coarse sea salt and the other an unusually tangy, vinegar salt. I liked the vinegary one best. “So,” the overly jolly owner replied with a wink that was a bit too pronounced, “you’re putting the Tart before the Coarse!”
I get a kick out of bad punning as much as any wordy-nerdy English professor, but it was kind of a turn-off that the owner gently elbowed me as he uttered his witticism, which I suspected had “spontaneously” come to him for at least the third time that afternoon. But it did have the effect of making me think about the proverb of “putting the cart before the horse.”
I am pretty sure that I first heard the expression in about eighth grade when classmates were talking about a Hawaiian-themed party that a popular girl was planning. I told mom that she needed to take me shopping immediately so I could buy a great Hawaiian shirt for the shindig. She responded, “How do you know you’ll be invited? Don’t put the cart in front of the horse, Honey.”
My high school gym teacher expressed the idea of putting things in the wrong order in a much more memorable way. When he saw me trying to climb the Dreaded Ceiling Rope by desperately clinging with my legs before I’d decently gripped it with my upper body, he yelled, “ENGEL. YOU’RE DOING IT ASS-BACKWARDS!” Um, point taken, Coach Hobson.
And leave it to the ancient Romans to have an annual December holiday celebrating the world turned upside down: Saturnalia. From December 17th until December 23rd, Romans amused themselves by creating social chaos. During that week, master and servant exchanged roles at the dinner table, with the servants ordering their masters to bring the food and clean up following the meal. Even the traditional roles of male and female could be reversed.
The early Christians were so uncomfortable with this pagan holiday that when they chose to celebrate their Savior’s birth, they banished Saturnalia and instituted Christmas in its place. It made the perfect replacement, since in Christian theology, has there ever been an event more powerful than the birth of Christ in turning the pagan world upside down?
Linguist historians tell us that the first written evidence of the expression “the cart before the horse” was in Renaissance England around 1550. And during that exact same time period, a new adjective was first used. It was a synonym for “risible” and “ridiculous,” both of which derive from the Latin verb for “laugh” (risus, ridere).
But this new adjective was better, since its roots revealed that this particular laughter was caused by placing things in the wrong order, just as with that good old cart and horse. When we place something before something else, when it should be coming after it, it’s quite funny. So take the Latin for “before”— PRE; now attach it to the Latin for “after”— POST; and — voila — you have that wonderful but underutilized adjective: PRE-POST-EROUS, meaning “laughably out of order.”
How can I demonstrate the preposterousness of reversing natural order?
And then end it with the first. You know — open the paragraph with the last sentence. Perhaps I could demonstrate it with this three-sentence paragraph.
Time next until,
*Thank goodness my parents didn’t name me “Teliot.” Now that would be a preposterous reverse name.