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.