Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Prepossessing

I wonder who these Parkers are? They’re not a prepossessing-looking couple.
     [Inspector Japp in The Market Basing Mystery]
So what exactly does that word mean? Until the recent housing melt-down it might have—but didn’t—mean a couple just before they finally signed that enormous mortgage. But by the early twenty-first century, and long before that time already, the word had lost its currency, certainly in American English. I am sure that I’ve never used it, not in any public writing, nor yet in diaries (where my vocabulary often grows quite rich). But you’ll find it in so popular a novelist as Agatha Christy.

The word speaks of possession and uses the prefix pre, thus before. Literally prepossessing means [someone] possessing [something] before. But before what? In the quoted sentence, it seems as if the prepossession gives the Parkers a certain look—not. But when we unfold the actually meaning of this word, the possessor, or in this case non-possessor, is Inspector Japp. “To prepossess” means that a feeling or impression takes hold of an observer (in our case Japp) of what kind of people the Parkers are—before Japp has gotten to know them. Convoluted sort of meaning. It suggests that first impressions convey something immediate about the people we meet. And people who’re not prepossessing are people who don’t make a good impression. I’ve never seen the word used as an active verb employed by the observer. Japp could have said: “Prepossessing that Parker couple, I don’t get a good impression.” Thus another active verb has fallen into the pit of passivity. Back when the word came into use, the seventeenth century, it used to mean “causing prejudice.”

In the act of curling up with something entertaining to read, laziness prepossesses me. I’ve seen that word hundreds of times in the past. The context had taught me that its meaning is either glowing—or not if it is denied. Now, in my advancing years, I’ve looked it up. At last. And now, finally, I possess prepossessing.

Unprepossessing? Nondescript, not particularly pretty...

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