Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Waxing Eloquently

Posted by Neal on June 21, 2006

Ann Fisher, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, reported on political bloggers last month, writing at one point that:

The joke is that bloggers are youngish, live in their mothers’ basements, work in their pajamas and have nothing better to do than wax away on any number of topics.
“Bloggers perplex political parties,” Columbus Dispatch, 31 May 2006, p. E1)

If wax away on X in Fisher’s grammar means “express thoughts, at length, on X, then wax by itself must mean “express thoughts”. Since wax ordinarily means just “grow” (as in the ~ing moon) — or “apply wax to [something]” — how would it come to mean “express thoughts”? I’m guessing it comes from a misinterpretation of the expession wax eloquent. Here, the “grow” meaning is extended to mean “become” in the same way as happened with the word grow itself: You could even say “grow eloquent” instead of “wax eloquent” and have the same meaning. And since eloquent means “speaking vividly and fluently”, wax eloquent means to come to be in a state of speaking vividly and fluently, or more succinctly, to begin to speak vividly and fluently.

But if someone hearing the phrase wax eloquent doesn’t make the connection to the semi-archaic meaning of “grow” for wax, then it’s easy to conclude that wax must just be some strange verb that happens to mean “talk” or “express thoughts”. And if that’s the meaning they have for wax, then they’re classifying it as an ordinary, intransitive verb (e.g., walk, sleep, roar…), and they’re not classifying it in the same set with verbs such as be, grow, seem, or become (i.e. linking verbs in English grammar terms, or copulas in terms Beavis and Butthead would like).

If they’re not classifying wax as a linking verb, then every time they hear it in an expression like wax eloquent/nostalgic/poetic, it will grate on their ears, and they’ll wonder why on earth people say it that way, when any educated speaker knows that verbs are modified with adverbs, not adjectives. When they go to use one of those expressions themself (yes, themself, since I’m using they to refer to one hypothetical person), the cognitive dissonance between the way they think the expression should be and the way they’ve heard it will be so great that, sooner or later, they’ll go ahead and change those adjectives into adverbs, and end up with wax eloquently, wax nostalgically, and wax poetically. And why stop there? Adverbs can come before the verb as well as after it, so why not eloquently wax, nostalgically wax, and poetically wax?

Judging from the passage I quoted, I’ll bet that one of these days I’ll see one of these phrases in a column by Ann Fisher.

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5 Responses to “Waxing Eloquently”

  1. Robero Aníbal Bonaldi said

    I found this:

    Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » String Theory for Undergraduates – [ Traduzca esta página ]and yet wax away on how lousy everything is. You complain about Lubosian tactics, yet bully those who bring up valid physics points–James isn’t the only …
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=427 – 153k –

    Apparently “wax away on…” is being used as you suggest. To my non-native ears it’s just another idiomatic expression.

  2. […] by Neal on July 31, 2008 In a post from 2006, I quoted a local columnist as writing: The joke is that bloggers are youngish, live in their […]

  3. Jon Gefaell said

    I am obsessed by vocabulary and diction. I’m not terribly good at it yet much better than many. As I write I look up the words I selected to use and often I am delighted I’ve picked a word that has just the right nuance. I’m also delighted to find I didn’t know what I thought. That’s because I get to improve. In fact I looked up diction earlier to make sure I was happy with it.

    So it is that I found this page when I decided to use ‘wax eloquent’ in a missive. I thoroughly enjoyed the article and felt compelled to thank the author. It was a great read!
    Hurrah!
    -JG

  4. i have always admired the term “wax eloquent” but i had never come across such prolixity as the writer has done! surely gentleman, you know how to wax eloquent about a non-issue! i had always been under the thorough impression that it was the sole preserve of politicians and counsels in court and court jesters in the royal confines; but waxing eloquent without has just traipsed a novel frontier– a frontier akin to oblivion. nevertheless, i always had unqualified admiration for people who could wax eloquent on the premises of english grammar (which is rather unstructured and convention rules the roost) sweeping the established theories stately under the carpet. however, the effort to wean an audience is praise-worthy! i will eagerly look forward to such raucous humour to enthrall or inveigle the serious and the frivolous!

    • Apropo Nohomo said

      You really should just make your point Rantideb. Perhaps next time avoid trying to wax eloquently and just eat some vegan meat.

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