Sunday, July 21, 2013

Apropos of absolutely nothing

 “Apropos of absolutely nothing” is an expression my dad used to say to bring up a subject unrelated to anything we had been talking about earlier, usually at dinner. Being Midwestern, he pronounced the first word, “APP-r’poh,” and made so little effort to connect the word to its French origin, that I remember as a little girl thinking he had said, “APPLE-poe” and I liked the sound of it. “APPLE-poe of absolutely nothing.”  But I have never found a way to say it naturally, except within the family, and even then I would preface it with, “as Dad would say…”

     I am bringing up this subject a bit apropos of absolutely nothing itself; but it’s a lazy summer evening and I was reading a book just now when suddenly, the author used that very phrase. Since my father passed away many years ago, the words had an immediate Proustian effect: childhood dinners at home flashed before me, and since my place at the table was always next to Dad, I could hear him talking to me and smiling as he said it. (He always gave some facial cue when using a big phrase that could otherwise sound pretentious so as to share the joke – like when he would say the British “SHedule”, instead of our “SKedule”). Nor did he ever say “Apropos of nothing;” with him it, it was always “absolutely nothing,” with “absolutely” stretching out the phrase and further accentuating how irrelevant it was to the previous conversation chain. But until reading that line a few moments ago, I had never read it nor heard anyone else say it.

     “Apropos” was adopted into English from the French “a propos” back in the 17th century and by now should surely not be a stranger. But its Latin roots do tend to relegate it to the back shelf of our linguistic cupboard because it’s just not as useful as other Anglo-Saxon-based, everyday turns of phrase, like, “Oh – you know what?” or in the more current, “This is sort of random but …”

     But if you do decide to use the word “apropos” by itself, you should be aware that it is frequently confused with “appropriate,” according to Bee Dictionary’s “Common Errors in English.” A remark may be apropos (relevant) to a situation, but wearing a tuxedo to a formal event is “appropriate” -- not “apropos.” Or maybe some linguistically-minded chef will invent a new seasonal dessert: the Apple Poe.