Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Waxing On

Posted 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 mothers’ basements, work in their pajamas and have nothing better to do than wax away on any number of topics.

From the context, it seems that wax away means to write or talk about something in an overly serious or dramatic tone. As I wrote then, I imagine the sequence of events that got us to a state where wax could have this meaning. To recap:

  1. Usage of wax with its meaning “to grow or increase” (in size or some other quality) becomes rarer and rarer.
  2. Speakers without this meaning for wax in their vocabulary hear expressions like wax eloquent (meaning “grow or become eloquent”).
  3. They know from context that wax eloquent means to speak eloquently.
  4. They conclude that wax means to speak (and also miscorrect the adjective eloquent to the adverb eloquently).
  5. They also note that when wax means to speak, it’s usually describing some kind of highly emotional or excited speech (wax bold, wax indignant, wax nostalgic, etc.), and accordingly use it that way themselves.

Earlier this week, the columnist did it again, writing:

In [a previous] column, I waxed about how lucky I was that, when that magic moment arrived…. (Ann Fisher, “It’s been a year, so how’s the 401K?”, The Columbus Dispatch, July 28, 2008 )

And just today, I read a review of George Carlin’s posthumously released comedy album, and found this line:

Not so this time, with Carlin waxing on — with four-letter words in abundance — about the advantages of getting older. (John Rogers, Associated Press, “Carlin Gets in one last laugh”, July 29, 2008 )

It seemed to me I was hearing this new usage of wax more and more, but as any reader of Language Log knows, just because you’ve only heard something recently doesn’t mean it’s a recent innovation. This time I was curious enough to look in the Oxford English Dictionary. The grow/increase meaning was there, in definition 9a, with the earliest attestation around 1200:

9. a. With adj. complement: (a) With more or less of the idea of growth or increase: To become gradually, grow.

The meaning of “to speak or write in an emotional manner” wasn’t there, though a draft addition from June 2006 comes close:

To speak or write (increasingly) in the manner specified; esp. in to wax lyrical, to wax eloquent. Cf. sense 9a.

Its first attestation is an 1842 token of waxed eloquent. Still, this definition doesn’t quite identify the latest usage of wax. It says to speak or write “in the manner specified” — that is, in whatever manner is denoted by the adjective that follows. The newer meaning already has the manner specified: some kind of emotional. Providing an adjective to say exactly what kind of emotional is optional. Note that the three examples above omit the adjectives entirely, using only the adverbial particles on and away to indicate prolonged action.

As a quick check to make sure the OED hadn’t just overlooked this meaning for wax, I searched through the Corpus of Late Modern English, ranging from 1710 to 1920. I found plenty of examples of wax meaning “grow or become”, such as waxed weak, or waxing keener and keener; they even outnumbered the examples of wax eloquent and the like. Not a single instance of wax meaning “speak emotionally” all by itself.

Next, I checked in Mark Davies’s recently available Corpus of Contemporary American English, which goes from 1990 to the present. There I found 30 attestations, four of them from 2004, but at least one in all years except 1998, 1999, and 2001. The next highest number was three attestations from 1990, so it seems that this innovation had already taken place by this time. The actual attestations are:

  1. 1990: “I know what I want to be,” says Kate, intently waxing: “a scientist.”
  2. 1990: friends who are outside the record business who are my age, and everybody waxes about Ah, when we were kids, music was great….
  3. 1990: A Croatian will then wax on about the first Croatian kingdom of the ninth century, a Serb will become
  4. 1991: His mother, Effie, waxes on about a $ 1,900 push-button hospital bed she dreams of buying.
  5. 1991: his eyes in trance-like fashion, a medium conjuring up the dead, and waxes over Cyrus the Great, Scipio Africanus, Niccolo Machiavelli and other kindred spirits,
  6. A doctrine that waxes wildly or routinely disappoints valid expectations threatens not only its own life but the credibility
  7. It’s something that you television viewers may not have heard me wax eloquently on, as often, and as frequently as radio listeners have heard.
  8. They wax philosophically on the video effects industry, Commodore computers, and attitudes good and bad
  9. 1995: she plays bass, shops in Georgetown, disses dieting and waxes on about mothers and daughters.
  10. 1996: That having been settled, the waiter waxes on with even greater enthusiasm.
  11. 1996: Despite his dismal performance, he was not deterred from waxing indignantly over the way mill conditions kept the Irish down while enabling the owners to
  12. 1997: I don’t think I ever met them but I remember my father waxing on ecstatically about them
  13. 1997: out what time zone it is in their home district, and suddenly just wax eloquently about a subject that nobody’s been talking about all day. Or wax meanly.
  14. 2000: he waxes on in the traditional Republican vein when it comes to issues like cutting taxes,
  15. 2002: She waxes about how DiSpirito is a powerful “draw” on an exclusive invitation like this
  16. 2002: Rumsfeld’s defense review waxes expansively about the need to prepare for” asymmetric warfare” by enemies intent on
  17. 2003: has always been essentially a communal activity,” says Greeley, who regularly waxes warmly about his own experience growing up in a Chicago parish.
  18. 2003: Risa Robbins, CEO of American Technology Alliances, is a flamenco dancer and waxes about how blending the singer, guitarist and dancer is a metaphor for what she
  19. 2004: They go down — sometimes the hard way — to find a few cathedrals worth waxing about.
  20. 2004: are tempted into what he always called the “Empedoclean folly” of either waxing on, metadiscursively, about (or, rather, “above”) such
  21. 2004: you know, for example, if there’s a story that waxes about Arab oppression at the hands of Israel, then that story will immediately and
  22. 2004: No doubt you’re going curious about who waxes so.
  23. 2005: A videotape loops in the store VCR, Charney waxing over and over on the American Apparel way.
  24. 2005: Reid waxes exhaustively on Searchlight — in speeches, floor debates, even in a 233-page book
  25. 2005: writer Luc Sante, a champion of the down and out, waxes eloquently in his preface.
  26. 2006: He was sitting in the gym named after him, waxing as only he can — in rapid-fire cadence with a Southern drawl, if you
  27. 2006: does everything for us. He really loves Thailand and his citizens,” waxes Anavach Ongvasith, an executive at Major Cineplex.
  28. 2006: Cessna waxes affectionately about his audiences, giving them the collective nickname ” good people.”
  29. 2007: king of the one-syllable utterances in local media settings, was heard to wax jubilantly in his conference-call chat with northern California media.

On a hunch, after reading about people waxing on and waxing away, I did a search on “wax off”, and found that people are saying that, too, like in this headline:


What does wax mean in your lexicon? What prepositions can you use it with? And if you have pre-1990 attestations, I’m eager to read them.

UPDATE, Aug. 3, 2008: I posted a message to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, asking for pre-1990 attestations of this usage of wax. Doug Wilson and Ben Zimmer were on it. First, Doug reported an attestation from a 1980 dissertation called Color, Class, and Politics in Jamaica, by Aggrey Brown:

The influential English economist, John Stuart Mill, waxed eloquently
on this point: …. (p. 80)

A few hours later, Ben had pushed the date back almost a decade, with an oCt. 15, 1974 attestation from the Oakland Tribune:

Over Rust’s contemporary Dussek, [Vladimir] Pleshakov waxed rhapsodically. “Dussek was five to 10 years
ahead of Beethoven in pianistic devices, and 30 years ahead of Chopin in fusing an epicaphysiognomy,” he elucidated in arcane fashion.

No, Ben didn’t know what epicaphysiognomy was, either. Ben accompanied the 1974 attestation with one from the previous year, in Joe Adamson’s book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo:

“There are many scenes of splendor and fierce antagonism,” he waxed
rhapsodically. (p. 398 )

That was at breakfast. During lunch, Ben came back with two more. First was one from Sept. 16, 1932 in the Atlanta Daily World:

Hubard … states that Ralph is waxing eloquently over the prospect of eying the scene of his birth.

The other was from 1921, the year after the last year represented in the Late Modern English corpus I checked above. It’s from the July 7 Atlanta Constitution:

The Cleveland News, being satisfied with conditions in Ohio, recently waxed eloquently and libelously on the sad state of affairs in Georgia.

Then Doug came back, this time with an attestation from July 29, 1875, well within the period covered by the LME corpus. From the Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen:

The newspapers which publish these charming narratives show at least their own estimate of the character of their readers, and their own determination to make the press, the engine over which they wax so eloquently, the minister of refinement and a softer civilization.

Ben then reported in with a couple more from the 1870s, but as yet, Doug Wilson’s 1875 attestation is the earliest dating for wax meaning “to speak or write emotionally”. In addition, Ben offers this observation on a possible contributor to this development of wax:

Many early hits on Proquest fit the older frame “wax eloquently ADJ” (e.g., “wax eloquently indignant / talkative / enthusiastic”). Perhaps the prevalence of “wax ADV ADJ” eventually helped license “wax ADV”.

Thanks, Doug and Ben, and in general to the members of the ADS mailing list!

UPDATE, Aug. 8, 2008: Look, someone else did it in today’s paper!

As country sginer Miranda Lambert waxed melodically, about big dreams and broken hearts during the first concert of the latest Ohio State Fair, another spirited — yet silent — discourse played out just steps from the Celeste Center limelight. (Kevin Joy, “Acting out music: Sign language interpreters pour whole selves D1)

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10 Responses to “Waxing On”

  1. michael said

    I’ve always ‘heard’ it as blathering or prattling on. I suppose the excited or emotional manner makes sense but I always figured that was included in the “on” that I inferred as the continual manner.

    “Waxing on and on” does bring up several ghits. And most of them are connected to praise or an intense interest in a topic.

    I still remember the first time I heard any use of “wax” in connection to this type of speech. A high school girlfriend wrote it in my yearbook (’88? ’89?) when she had filled up a page and decided that she should wind it up. The note is hidden away in a closet somewhere — but I think she wrote “well I could wax poetic forever…”

    And she could have you know. She’d be nigh unto the bard by now.

  2. Kip said

    The only time I can recall hearing a phrase like “wax eloquent” was in the movie Mallrats (1995). One of the characters says something like “we could stand around here and wax intellectual all day or we actually could go do something about it.” I got the impression that a phrase like “wax intellectual” was something that people said to try to sound smarter. I never thought about why it was OK to use “wax” in that phrase. I was familiar with wax meaning “to grow in size” only from moon cycles (waxing or waning moon), but I never made the connection from that to phrases like “wax eloquent.”

  3. swetergrl said

    I loathe the expression “wax . That one and “meet cute” are cheesy, smarmy, inane, and insipid. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s more evidence that people are very lazy about using adverbs correctly, i.e., “meet cutely”, wax eloquent/poetic. Fantastic post. You said things that needed to be said.

  4. TootsNYC said

    You wrote: ” The newer meaning already has the manner specified: some kind of emotional.”

    I disagree. The newer meaning is strictly about talking a lot.

    As proof, I point to some of the examples you found: intently waxing, waxing wildly, wax indignantly, waxing eloquently.

    In ” intently waxing,” the word “waxing” simply means talking. It does not in fact mean “being emotional,” because “intently” does that.

    When it stands alone, it carries the connotation of not allowing interruptions, or being single-minded as you speak, or maybe of not listening at all and only talking.

    (I kept waiting for “wax poetic” in the examples.)

  5. viola said

    Wax on, wax off! Chad and I give that signal to each other when the boys question our motives while teaching them some of life’s little lessons.
    I always thought waxing went with waning. Obviously it has several different meanings depending on its context.
    As far as emotions go: we’re emotional people and can put that twist on just about anything.

  6. Neal said

    I agree with your reasoning up until the conclusion. Molest does not mean to sexually molest, and intercourse does not mean sexual intercourse, unless the adjective sexual accompanies them, but in common practice, the sexual meaning is firmly embedded in these words. Similarly, even when someone doesn’t specifically say poetic or eloquent or dramatic, that connotation is there if they use wax as in these examples. At least, that’s my opinion. Michael, however, seems to share your understanding of wax as a standalone verb to mean “without interruption”. What do the rest of you think?

  7. The Ridger said

    “Wax” means to “grow” for me, and I admit that “wax eloquent” is the only speech-related use I have for it – and it’s inchoative. I can’t say that I’ve noticed the “he waxed on” etc – but I may just not have noticed.

  8. The Ridger said

    Some of those examples – the ones with adverbs, like “waxed rhapsodically”, seem to just mean “talked” to me.

  9. Ra said

    Remember that the wordsmiths don’t dictate how a word is used as much as they take note of how we elect to use our words. It is us, not them, who decides what is added to our lexicon. For example, take the word fax. Not long ago, grammar nazis were enraged that someone would dare to use fax as a verb, when it is clearly a noun, as evidenced by it being a contraction of facsimile. Of course, even before fax machines went from ubiquitous to obsolete, people were faxing info all over the world and those who record such things were forced to include its use as a verb also, in our dictionaries.

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    […]Waxing On « Literal-Minded[…]…

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