Word of the Day: wax

Word of the Day: wax.


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 soliloquies 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.

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 v 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 w words among their v 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.


What happened to the word wax happens to a lot of words that have a rival word with a similar signification. Sometimes one word is general while the other is specific or more narrowly applied, and that was the case with wax and grow. Anything could wax: a child, a tree, the health of a nation, good feeling between neighbors, the fame of a statesman; anything susceptible of increase. What could grow? Things that become green.  

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