How we got the terms postlude, prelude, and interlude

A travel brochure offered a river cruise through France and added: “For those who would like to extend their stay in France, an optional prelude in Normandy and an optional postlude in Versailles are offered.”

A psychology conference added a “postlude” to its lecture series, offering attendees two more days of lectures.

A movie critic dissecting Escape Room complains about endings that seem tacked on: “The postludes of today have become increasingly less the stylistic flourishes of confident or gonzo filmmakers and more like hedging, like plaintive pleas for a sequel.”

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You probably know what a “prelude” is, and you probably know its close cousin, “interlude,” so you’re likely able to figure out that “postlude” is the something that comes after. “Pre-” (before), “inter-” (during), and “post-”(after) are all prefixes that set something into a specific time period.

But what’s the “lude” that they are timing?

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The play’s the thing. Literally. “Lude” is from the Latin “lūdus,” meaning a play, the Oxford English Dictionary says. In English, though, “lude” with no prefixes is an obsolete word meaning “game,” tracing to 1694.

The OED says “interlude” is the oldest, dating to 1303. Its etymology, the OED says, is “medieval (Anglo-) Latin interlūdium,” itself a combination of “inter” and “lūdus.” An “interlude” between acts of a play often featured a humorous character to lighten the mystery or morality play being presented. Any “interval in the course of some action or event” was an “interlude” by 1751. An “interlude” in music appeared around 1838, the OED says: “An instrumental piece played between the verses of a psalm or hymn, or in the intervals of a church-service, etc.”

Then came “prelude,” around 1548. Interestingly, the OED says it is from “multiple origins”: “Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: French prélude; Latin praeludium.” That Latin means, um, “prelude.” And while “prelude” derived from the practice of warming up the voice or instrument by performing a few notes, its oldest usage in English is “A preliminary action, or condition, preceding and introducing one of more importance; an introduction, a preface; a precursor,” as the OED says.

“Postlude” first appeared around 1851 and was first applied to music and later to a written or spoken epilogue. But using “postlude” to mean an addition to something like a vacation, conference, or movie seems to be relatively recent.

Most appearances of “postludes” relate to music, often accompanied by one of its close relations. At a wedding, for example, the “prelude” gets the guests in the mood before the wedding party enters and the “postlude” gets them out of the church afterwards. But at a wedding there is no “interlude”; instead, the members of the wedding party walk down the aisle to the “processional” and leave during the “recessional.” An “interlude” separates two things, and no other “lude” allows the wedding party to both come in and leave.

Of the three, “prelude” is used more frequently in books, as shown by this Google n-gram, possibly because it is used more frequently than the others in nonmusic contexts. “Postlude” barely registers on the chart, despite William Carlos Williams’ popular 1913 poem Postlude.

“Postlude” also rarely shows up in news copy, and when it does, it’s almost always as a reference to music. The funerals of both President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain featured “postludes,” music for mourners to exit.

The New York Times used it in the context of music in an article about the Massachusetts music venue Tanglewood: “Make a very long weekend of your trip to the Berkshires with three Boston Symphony concerts and, as a postlude on Monday, an evening with the young players of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.”

To use “prelude” and “postlude” as synonyms for extensions to a vacation or a lecture series smacks of jargon for travel agencies, tour operators, and marketers. And while dictionaries follow rather than lead, none of the major ones have any definition for the extension kind of “postlude.” American Heritage comes closest, with a definition for “A final chapter or phase.” Everyone else keeps “postlude” close to music or the spoken word. Let’s try to keep it that way, at least as it comes to prolonging a trip, lecture series, or the like: “Extension,” “add-on,” or “additional days” better convey what they want you to buy.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.