I came across the word “postliminary” while reading, not long ago, and it left me thinking about how rarely that word is used. (The spell checker didn’t even recognize it when I wrote this post.) It refers to things that people do after finishing an activity, like cleaning up and putting tools away. In employment law, it means a worker’s necessary tasks at the end of a shift, such as taking off protective gear and hanging it up, which are counted as work time for purposes of calculating overtime pay.

Rows of hard hats hanging on a wall.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

It is closely related to “preliminary.” Both words come from the same Latin root meaning a threshold or a boundary. “Post” means after, and “pre” means before. So, “postliminary” literally means after the boundary. That’s all fairly straightforward as word origins go. What I find interesting about it is that although “postliminary” gets almost no use except as a specialized legal term, we’re always using “preliminary” in ordinary conversation. That word has become so common that it even gets abbreviated, such as when we talk about an athletic event’s prelims. (The spell checker recognized prelims.)

I’m thinking that maybe this difference in word usage reflects a culture with a strong focus on planning and carrying out plans, but with very little consideration given to what comes afterward. Companies have been doing better in recent years, using continuous-improvement processes to measure and analyze project results; but as individuals, we often don’t have a good sense of what comes next when we reach transition points in our own lives. We haven’t thought much about what we might find after the boundary.

That’s understandable because people never really needed to think about it before the modern era. Our ancestors’ little villages didn’t change much from one year to the next. When something changed, it generally was simple enough that everyone knew how to deal with it—a good harvest or a bad one, a birth or a death in the village, a flood or a drought. If someone invented a better tool or returned from a long voyage with new knowledge to share, this was such a rare event that the villagers had plenty of time to learn all about it before any other surprises turned up.

Now, in the Information Age, we find something new just about every day, which means our brains are always on overload trying to cram huge amounts of unexpected new stuff into our existing mental maps. It’s no wonder that we spend so much time and energy planning how we’re going to manage each day in this busy, competitive, confusing world. We might realize in the abstract that it would be a good idea to consider our next steps, too; but because today’s society is so free-flowing, we often don’t know how to go about it.

We no longer have the predictability of life in those long-ago villages. While that’s good in some ways because we have so many choices and opportunities that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, we also have more challenges to navigate. Sometimes we just need to step back from our busy plans for a moment and think about how we’re going to clean things up afterward!


  1. A great post, you raise a good point and you taught me a new word! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *