Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The verb  wax,  meaning  to grow,  has only a few surviving uses in English. The moon  waxes  and wanes. And people  wax  . . . some adjective, usually describing their gestures or their speech. Note: adjective, not adverb. It’s often misused. If John is waxing eloquently,  maybe he is reciting the Gettysburg Address while polishing his Camaro. If Mary is  waxing poetically, maybe she is reciting Hamlet’s soliloquys while polishing the coffee table. That is, she’s waxing the table, and she’s being poetic about it. But  wax,  meaning  to grow,  always takes an adjective, just as  grow  does. You can grow angry. You can’t grow  angrily. That makes no sense. Therefore you can  wax poetic,  or  wax lugubrious,  or  wax nostalgic,  or  wax suspicious. 

Word of the Day The word is very old indeed. It was our original general word for growth, of plants, children, animals, nations, whatever. It is cognate with German  wachsen, to grow. It used to be a  strong verb,  too—the German linguist’s term for verbs that don’t fool around with piddly dental past tenses, but change their own darned vowels, take that! The Anglo Saxon  weaxan  had the past  weox: he weox eald, he grew old;  cf. German  er wuchs, he grew. Does it have any relations in Italy and Greece? Quite a few. The old Romans used the letter  for the sound we denote by a  w:  so that Caesar’s boast,  Veni, vidi, vici,  might still at that time have been pronounced  wainy, weedy, weeky,  which does  not  actually impress the ear with power; and that may explain why he had to cross the Rubicon. In any case, we look for Latin cousins of our  words among their  words. And sure enough, we have  vigere, to thrive;  and the kinfolk in that clan, from which we derive Modern English  vegetable  and vigor. So if a man  waxes vigorous,  we can say he  waxes waxy:  a heck of a lot of growing going on there.

Show 0 comments



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles