Q&A: What does “apropos of nothing” mean?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, apropos now…

Q: Hi AWC, what does it mean when Sheryl Crow says “apropos of nothing” in the hit 1994 song All I Wanna Do

A: What do YOU think it means?

Q: Hmmm, is it some kind of payment system, like EFTPOS? She’s singing in a bar after all. 

A: It is not. First, let’s clarify the pronunciation. You say it “ap-ruh-POH”.

Q: Okay.

A: And the word “apropos” has a few uses, so let’s start there shall we?

Q: Fine. We have apropos of nothing to lose, after all! 

A: That is not one of the uses.

Q: Hey, all I wanna do is have some fun…

A: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “apropos” came to English from French in the 1660s, from the French”á propos” – “to the purpose”, from the original Latin “propos” – meaning a “thing said in conversation, talk; purpose, plan”.

Q: 1660s? Just in time for the Great Fire of London!

A: Well, the original role for “apropos” in English was as an adverb, meaning ‘opportunely’. So one might say that considering all the disease and rat-infested filth in the city at that time, the Great Fire of London arrived “apropos”.

Q: And it still means opportunely?

A: It does. It can also relate to the seasonality. So blossoms in spring appear apropos.

Q: That’s quite the contrast from disease and filth.

A: We try to mix up our examples.

Q: Nice.

A: By 1690, “apropos” was also being used similarly as an adjective – describing something that was relevant or opportune. For example, “The hunting lodge has a giant stag’s head above the fireplace, which feels very apropos.”

Q: So is “apropos” related to “appropriate”?

A: Etymologically, no. But their meanings are very similar today.

Q: What about the word “propose” then?

A: Yes it is related, but curiously, that word started out as “propound” – from the Latin “proponere”. However over time, the French came in and simply swapped out the ending to fit with one that suited THEIR purpose.

Q: They just did it for no real reason?

A: That’s right, apropos of nothing!

Q: Ahhhh, I see what you did there. So, that has brought us back to all this “apropos of nothing” silliness.

A: It has. And to be fair to the above uses, while they are valid and pop up from time to time, they’re less commonly seen than the use of “apropos of” as a preposition – something that took hold around the 1760s. Certainly well before 1994.

Q: So, what’s the meaning here?

A: “Apropos of” goes back to the original Latin, relating to “a thing said in conversation”. Essentially, “apropos of” is just a fancy way to say “with regard or reference to”. It gets used when bringing up some other fact or anything relevant to the topic at hand.

Q: Unless of course…

A: Unless of course something is “apropos of nothing”! Not relevant or without reference to anything. So, in the earlier example, the French just came and changed “propound” to “propose” with no etymological reference – apropos of nothing. 

Q: And Sheryl Crow?

A: Her lyric states that a man sitting next to her just says something to her out of nowhere. “It’s apropos of nothing” she goes on to add. Not in relation to anything.

Q: Well, she was drinking at noon on a Tuesday, so it was likely to happen.

A: It was.

Q: Do you have another real world example for me? It doesn’t have to be from a song.

A: Okay, well you might say that “a tree fell in the forest, apropos of nothing”. No storm. No lumberjacks etc. It just fell.

Q: Ah yes. But the real question is did it make a sound?

A: Haha. Annoyingly, sometimes “apropos of” drops the “of” while still meaning “with regard/reference to”. For example, “Apropos the planned changes, more discussion is needed.”

Q: Or you could just say “regarding” and stop being pompous!

A: True. And “pompous” is another great French-derived word.

Q: Okay, so to recap. “Apropos” can describe something relevant or opportune. But it can also be a preposition, usually with “of”, meaning “with regard to”.

A: That’s right. So if something is “apropos of nothing” it’s unrelated to anything. 

Q: Any final fun facts?

A: Yes actually. During the 2020 COVID outbreak, the US mint coincidentally brought out a quarter dollar coin with a design of a bat (the animal thought to have started the pandemic). Many called this release “ironic” – but the better term to describe it would actually have been “apropos” (relevant and opportune).

Q: Don’t even get me started on Alanis Morisette’s abuse of the definition of “ironic”…

A: Haha, we’ll save that for another day.

Q: Right now, all I wanna do is have some fun. And I got a feeling I'm not the only one…?

A: Ummm nope. You’re the only one.

Q: Ugh, I wonder if you’ve ever had a day of fun in your whole life.

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