Word of the Day: buxom

Word of the Day: buxom.

 

In the Beetle Bailey comic strip, the old addled General Halftrack has a dumb blonde secretary with really dangerous curves. Her name, of course, is Miss Buxley. Mort Walker was punning on the word buxom, which is now used only to describe a woman – and not every woman, either!
It wasn’t always so. In Paradise Lost, Milton describes Satan as flying through the buxom air. What could he have meant?
We need to return to the Old English: bugsam. The second part of the word is our suffix some: winsome, lonesome, handsome: it is the same suffix as the German –sam: langsam. It suggests that something is really characterized by what precedes: it’s the real deal. So what did the bug- mean? Was something bugsam full of bugs?


No. The Old English verb bugan meant to bend. The old g’s at the ends of syllables often turned, by Middle English, into the semivowels w and y, so we have quite a few words in English that have to do with bending, that have those sounds at the end of a little word beginning with b: bow (both kinds), bough, bay, bight. Some people call a bay window a bow window: the idea is the same. German had many of the same words: so we end up with Yiddish bagel.


So something that is buxom is pliant, yielding – it gives way, it bends. But I trust Miss Buxley didn’t.

 

Yet if Miss Buxley had been Mrs. Halftrack, it would have been darned attractive in her, being buxom and all. There’s a mystery here. We suppose that to be soft and yielding is a sign of weakness, but it all depends upon the object and the cause. Everybody wants more rigor in educational standards, but nobody wants more rigor in the patient on the operating table; and sometimes the first kind of rigor leads in young children to something like the second kind. It is a virtue, though one to keep an eye on, to have a soft heart; it is a vice to have a hard head. People who are pliable can be won over, sometimes with plausible arguments, sometimes with threats or promises. People who are compliant follow the law, though it is not clear that they actually obey it within their hearts. Compliance is can be the path of prudence, or the path of cowardice.

 

It is good to bend to the will of God; and that is why Dante makes a point of showing us that the only plants that can survive the buffeting of the waves, on the shores of Mount Purgatory, are slender reeds. He must be girded with one of those reeds before he can proceed up the mountain. Girded with what leans with the spirit; the light and easy panoply of God.


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