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TWTS: Prone to be prone

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Our listeners are prone to ask us questions about words we’ve never even considered as potential topics for That’s What They Say. Listeners like Kat Peterson, who wondered how the meanings of “prone” are connected.

“I’m prone to using the word ‘prone’ to mean something I’m likely to do, for example, lying prone in bed while listening to your show. Being prone to doing something vs. being prone while doing something obviously mean different things,” says Peterson.

What Peterson is referring to is an example of a metaphorical extension. That’s when a word takes on meanings beyond its literal, physical meaning.

"Prone” was borrowed into English from Latin in the 1400s and meant “lying face down” or “leaning forward.” It could refer to something descending downward, such as a stream that finds “prone passage.” Your hand is prone when it’s palm-side down.

When “prone” made its way into English from Latin in the 1400s, it already had a metaphorical meaning, which was “being disposed to doing something” or “eager” or “liable to doing something.” This could have come from the idea that when we’re eager or excited about something, we have a tendency to lean forward.

Peterson went on to ask us about other words that refer to certain positions. To hear about “supine” and “prostrate,” listen to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.