Word: prosaic

Pronunciation: proh-ZAY-ik

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition:

  1. having the style or diction of prose; lacking poetic beauty
  2. commonplace; unromantic

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Joe Fox: So what’s his handle?

[…]

Kathleen Kelly: All right, NY152.

Joe: N-Y-one-five-two. One hundred and fifty-two. He’s a hundred and fifty-two years old. He’s had one hundred and fifty-two moles removed, so now he’s got one hundred fifty-two pock marks on his… (laughing) on his face… […] A hundred and fifty-two stitches from his nose job. The number of his souvenir shot glasses that he’s collected in his travels.

Kathleen: No! The number… The numb- His address? No! No, he would never do anything that prosaic.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

I always remember this excerpt from the movie You’ve Got Mail as the first instance in which I ever heard the word “prosaic”. While executing his plan to win over his love interest before revealing himself as her secret online friend, Joe Fox casually strikes up a conversation with Kathleen Kelly about the mystery person with whom she’s become infatuated. The two of them have fun trying to decipher the meaning of his screen name and come up with some colorful explanations for the number 152 – such as how many people think he looks like Clark Gable (or a Clark Bar) – so that by the time Kathleen stumbles upon the right answer, she merely dismisses it as an idea too straightforward for the poetic gentleman she’s come to know through the Internet (unaware, of course, that he’s standing right next to her).

An idea regarded as “prosaic” is considered simple and ordinary, sometimes in the sense of being boring. Writing or speech that’s “prosaic” is straightforward in style, thus lacking in poetic charm. The word can be traced back through Latin, from the adjective prosaicus (“in prose”) to the adjective prosa (“straightforward style”). “Prosaic” was also used in the late 16th century as a noun referring to a writer of prose, and its current definitions date back to the 18th century.

I find the word “prosaic” interesting for its contrast with the word “poetic”. Because these adjectives seem to be mutually exclusive, writing and speech can usually be considered either one or the other. That isn’t to say they’re collectively exhaustive, of course; one could argue that “purple prose” is a form all of its own, incorporating elements of both while having neither the straightforwardness of prose nor the elegance of poetry. Despite its possible neutral connotations, I would likely use the word “prosaic” in a sense similar to “pedestrian“, that is, to indicate an idea that’s a little too plain for its given context. Whether you use it to refer to a simple form of composition or to a humdrum concept, “prosaic” is an interesting word to consider for your writing (even if you wouldn’t necessarily use it to describe your style).

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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