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What is the etymology of the word 'prepend'?
January 25, 2012 9:52 AM   Subscribe

As I understand it, 'prepend' is common computer jargon to mean the opposite of append. In a little debate with some of my computer science colleagues, they claim that it is an actual English word with that meaning, while I contend that it's computer jargon that was invented out of convenience and that 'prepend' is actually an archaic word that means something similar to pondering.

Language is far from my expertise, which is why I ask you MeFites your opinions :) Is 'prepend' (to append before) an English word with a long and storied history of use, or is it a new word that is being added to the language since the advent of computing? And what is it's etymology?
posted by bushmango to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Evidence for your claim from the OED (copied from some random forum thread on the topic):

prepend, v.

rare.

trans. To weigh mentally, ponder, consider; to premeditate. (But app. often used by confusion for PERPEND.)

a1568 WEDDERBURN in Bannatyne Poems (Hunter. Cl.) 839 And als ye sowld prepend bayth day and houris, To grit mischeif, misery and neid, Fra paramouris dois evir mair succeid. 1621 BOLTON Stat. Irel. 128 (Act 28 Hen. VIII), The kings majestie..prepending and waying..how much it doth more conferre to the induction of rude and ignorant people to the knowledge of Almightie God. 1890 Scots Observer 4 Jan. 179 There are still amongst us people who prepend the Sphinx-torpedo question.


Hence prepended ppl. a., premeditated; = PREPENSE a. (nonce-use.)

1831 LAMB Elia Ser. II. Newspapers 35 Years Ago, To get up, moreover, to make jokes with malice prepended.
posted by Perplexity at 9:57 AM on January 25, 2012


Here is the Google ngram viewer for "prepend," showing usage going back to 1800.

Here is the Google Books search for those 1800 appearances.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:58 AM on January 25, 2012


This is not an answer, but you might get one by asking on English Language and Usage.
posted by katrielalex at 10:00 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's relatively new word conjured up in some programmer lab that I think works well and just happens to be the same as the archaic version. It was added to the OED in 2007.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:02 AM on January 25, 2012


It's relatively new word conjured up in some programmer lab that I think works well and just happens to be the same as the archaic version. It was added to the OED in 2007.

The OED entry for the "prefix" sense cites usage back to 1872, though: "‘Interpreting the voice of the Church as the voice of God,’ were the impressive words prepended by Bishop Janes‥to the usual question, ‘Do you feel yourself called of God to the office and work of a bishop?’" The other three usage citations for this sense are from 1981, 1987, and 2000, suggesting (to me) that its use was uncommon before the word was popularized in computer science circles.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:20 AM on January 25, 2012


Moreover, the original prepend was derived from Old French penser 'think,' whereas append is derived from Latin pendere 'hang.'
posted by jedicus at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't strike me that material which is appended to a work is necessarily added at the end by definition. An appendix is merely something which is a "subjoined addition to a document or book." Sure, it almost always is at the end. But I don't see why it has to be at the end.

Considering that the English language probably has more words than any other language, I find it hard to believe that there isn't an already-existing word having the meaning "to add an appendix at the beginning." Preface, for example.

Most likely, this is a habit that was developed out of convenience and perhaps a lack of sophisticated English vocabulary. If the word "preface" had been the one commonly used in programming, it seems likely that programmers may have started saying "postface" for things added at the end. Because for the most part we understand about prefixes. And it's clear to most people that "ap" is a prefix to "pend." If one supposes that "ap" meant "after" or "at the end of" then it makes sense to slap a "pre" on there to mean "before" or "at the beginning of." The mistake is that the "ap" prefix conveys the meaning of "in addition to."

All that said, if we understand that "pend" conveys the sense of "to hang from/depend upon/be made a part of" then one could use "prepend" for something added at the beginning, "postpend' for something at the end and "append" generally.
posted by slkinsey at 10:31 AM on January 25, 2012


Don't know which is right and which is wrong or which came first, but I've definitely known usages of perpend to mean "ponder, consider." if you'll pardon the self-link, there's one such in a book I quoted for a post, written around 1915 or so in Scotland.
posted by Diablevert at 10:38 AM on January 25, 2012


Just to get the obvious out of the way: if they use it that way, of course "it is an actual English word with that meaning." If it wasn't in the dictionaries, that would be because either 1) the circle of people using it is too small, or 2) the dictionaries hadn't gotten around to it yet.

In this case, though, it is lexicographically recorded. The latest (fifth) edition of the American Heritage Dictionary has this entry:
prepend tr.v. -pended -pending -pends To add or attach as a supplement to something at the beginning: prepended an introduction to the manuscript. [PRE- + -pend (as in APPEND).]
So your colleagues are right: it is an actual English word by any standard.
posted by languagehat at 11:10 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I looked into this a few years ago and came to the same conclusion as you. And since then common use seems to have resulted in its addition to at least one dictionary. Good, because I like it.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:02 PM on January 25, 2012


'prepend' is common computer jargon to mean the opposite of append... [my friends] claim that it is an actual English word with that meaning

Your friends are correct, it is an actual English word with that meaning.

while I contend that it's computer jargon that was invented out of convenience

You are also correct. Just because it was coined by computer geeks doesn't mean it's not currently an English word.

and that 'prepend' is actually an archaic word that means something similar to pondering.

This is also correct. Hundreds of years ago the word was apparently used a few times with that meaning.

Is 'prepend' (to append before) an English word with a long and storied history of use or is it a new word that is being added to the language since the advent of computing?

It's an English word which apparently has a long but sparse history of that usage, but recently became much more widely used.

The moral here is that language isn't black and white. Words mean what people use them to mean. Meanings can change over time, and one word can have multiple meanings each of which is derived from a different source.
posted by alms at 12:10 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


For me, action is stronger than location, so the opposite of append would (for me) be to remove something from the end, not to add something at the start.
posted by flif at 12:36 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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