Preponed meetings and other time travels

A coinage from India may help us keep our schedules straight.

"Hello, I'm calling to see whether we can prepone our meeting. I know it's been on the calendar for Friday afternoon at 2, but it's a holiday weekend, and so over in this office we're wondering whether we could do it Thursday at 4, instead."

You may have never run across prepone, dear reader, but its meaning should be clear from the example. It's a late 20th-century coinage used in South Asia as a counterpart of postpone.

In late March, for instance, an Indian outfit called ran an item about Sonia Gandhi, president of India's Congress Party, officially opening what's "believed to be" the largest tulip garden in Asia.

"The garden was scheduled to be opened next month but was preponed in view of early blooming of the tulips," the announcement read. (Arguably it was the opening rather than the garden that was preponed, but they didn't ask me.)

In mid-April, reported on a couple who were to be married in a hot-air balloon 600 feet off the ground. Originally set for late afternoon, "the marriage was preponed to 7.30 in the morning due to the bad weather conditions."

I've run into prepone often enough to wonder whether and how it will spread beyond South Asia. Does this new coinage meet a need? Yes, albeit a specialized one, like those long-handled spoons that are so useful for stirring iced tea.

The meaning of postpone, which comes from Latin words meaning "to place after," is familiar and unambiguous: to make something, typically a meeting or an event, later.

But to go in the other direction, I'm not sure the idiom to move something up (as contrasted with moving or pushing it back) is completely clear.

The only way to skirt ambiguity completely is to say "make it earlier/later," or, as in the example above, to mention a specific new time.

Indeed, if I were to talk to somebody about moving a date up, I would expect to have to clarify a bit, just as when, if I ask the man behind the meat counter at my friendly neighborhood supermarket for "a couple of steaks," I expect him to confirm that I want precisely two.

"If the game was scheduled for 7 and has been postponed until 7:30, aren't we pushing the time forward?" a reader wrote in a while back. "If we pushed the time back, we would start at 6:30."

I think I've hit on the source of the confusion. A stretch of time is like a stretch of road along which we drive from A to B.

We move forward or onward to the end of the week as we move forward to our destination along the road. An appointment being rescheduled earlier or later moves forward or back along a timeline, too.

But, as our reader suggests, the conventional usage that construes moving a date back to mean making it later is at odds with the spatial logic of forward motion toward a destination.

After all, if the driver ahead of us at a red light suddenly decides he's too far out into the intersection and starts to reverse, there's no doubt he's moving back toward us, potentially into our front bumper.

Of course, a language ultimately develops the words its users need, and since more things fall behind schedule than get ahead of schedule, it's natural that the vocabulary of postponement may be more fully developed than that of movement in the other direction, whatever we want to call it.

At one point in my concurrent study of French and German, I realized that I knew how to say "10 o'clock sharp" in German but not in French, and how to say "on the spur of the moment" in French but not in German.

I'm tempted to think there's a cultural insight lurking in there somewhere.

And does it say something about contemporary India, whose economy has been growing fast enough that the 8 percent growth predicted for this year qualifies as a "slowdown," that enough things happen ahead of schedule there that they need a special verb for them?

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