There appear betimes in printed books, in many magazines, on several sites of the world-wide web, passages of prose that bear a mark of calculated lucubration: not the wanton wit and spontaneous sparks of perverse paronomasia that flourish as flowers in the window-box of webby blogs, but lapidary parallelpipeds, nay, casques of Croesus, that, opened, produce pandiculations of Pandoran prose. As dogs must dig, starlings must swirl, seagulls must soar, and maniacs must murder, so too the wanton wordsmith willfully writes sesquipedalian sentences that stretch similitude and cloy close readers: Brummagem’s florins, Barmecide’s feasts, Tantalus’s nibbles, and ’t Audrey’s needlework – mental efforts meretricious in form and illusory in sense. None but the author believe them of value; the remainder wade through, as a treasure-hunter in a barnyard like as Hercules in the Augean stables, hoping that by perseverance they may find some diadem mired in the muck.

But no such luck. In the end, wipe you your lips and say you “Phooey.” One person’s idea of a well-built piece of prose is another’s complete waste of time. There was, it is true, a brief vogue in the Elizabethan court for euphuism, but the rest of the time we have only referred to it by euphemism – if we wish to be polite.

For, yes, euphuism is the word we use to refer to self-consciously erudite and overly flowery prose. And some people do write it. I won’t be so mean as to link to a recent example I’ve read, but it’s entertaining in its sick way to see a bloke in his twenties try through euphuism to sound pompous and established – while, in the next article on the same site, a bloke in his seventies who is well-established writes with the liveliness of a young man.

And where does this word come from, euphuism? It certainly has an air of emphatic enthusiasm about it, replacing as it seems to the demure phem of euphemism with a spouting phu. You can hear through it the author thinking “Yoo-hoo! Look over here!” But you know that it comes from Greek – the eu is a prefix meaning “good” or “pleasant” (as in euthanasia and eulogy, the first of which should happen to euphuisms and the second of which would be a good send-off for them only if brief), and the ph in European words is a reliable flag of Greek via Latin (you may also see it, standing for /p/ plus aspiration, in loans from Sanskrit, Thai, and a few other tongues).

Specifically, though, euphuism is an eponym. It is named after the main character of a couple of works written by John Lyly in 1578 and 1580: Euphues. His prose style was not simply florid willy-nilly but according to some specific principles – as the OED elucidates, “the continual recurrence of antithetic clauses in which the antithesis is emphasized by means of alliteration; the frequent introduction of a long string of similes all relating to the same subject, often drawn from the fabulous qualities ascribed to plants, minerals, and animals; and the constant endeavour after subtle refinement of expression.” But any kind of excessively affected prose may earn the monicker now.

Euphues in turn got his name from Greek εὐϕυής euphués “well-endowed by nature”. And indeed we see that the writers of euphuism, wanting to show themselves and their prose well endowed, resort to artificial expanders. Their goal is to show themselves, as it were, damn well hung; I rather think they should be damn well hanged.

7 responses to “euphuism

  1. Ha! Great post. Thanks for this, and, I freely admit, for making me look up “lucubration,” “paranomasia” and “pandiculation.” Always fun to learn new words!

  2. Curious: How long did it take you to craft that opening paragraph?

    • My wife kept interrupting me with questions about something she was working on, so it really took something like 20 minutes in the end, if I recall rightly.

  3. Pingback: Link love: language (41) « Sentence first

  4. We haven’t even met, and you write just like I did at prep school many years ago. Now I don’t.

  5. Pingback: antanaclasis, polyptoton | Sesquiotica

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