afflatus

We seek afflatus, but they laugh at us, or at most flatter us. But when the divine breath flutters through us, it will inflate us; for inspiration, we must inhale the sacred wind or we will expire. It is not just hot air! We are not just windbags or wind-breakers! …Right?

There are various airy, breathy words for spiritual and artistic motivation. There is inspiration, which is ‘breathing in’ (compare respire and spirometer); there is ruach, the spirit of God, from Hebrew for ‘breath’; there is its Greek counterpart, pneuma; there is kamikaze, ‘divine wind’ (not really quite as positive a force in its best-known use); and there is afflatus, related to inflate and flatulent (and to be pronounced with the same “long a”) but nearly always seen with divine before it.

Which is not really necessary, since the only thing we use it for now is to refer to a divine inspiration (especially of the poetic sort). True, technically it’s just Latin for ‘exhalation’ and could even refer to the mephitic eructations of Beelzebub or a balrog, but that would be weird and would annoy your readers.

That’s not to say that your divine afflatus won’t annoy them. It’s a small transmission error to go from the breath of a god to the breath of a dog, and thence to doggerel. You may feel sure that you have been inspired, but others may doubt that that has transpired – they may feel you ought to have perspired a bit more (or a bit less). I’m put in mind of the pneumatic effect James Joyce had on a much younger me: after I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (themselves the product of years of perspiration and lucubration – and probably lubrication – for Joyce), I wrote quite a bit of utterly intolerable drivel, not even inspired enough to be gloriously incoherent, just strings of fragmentary noun phrases and nonfinite verb phrases rehearsing my basic lack of insight into the human condition.

Well, there are quite a few books that are best saved for reading later in life when one is less impressionable – or, if one has read them at a green age, one can at least re-read them and begin to understand what was really going on. I’ve taken Ulysses off the shelf again, and when I needed an idea for a word to taste, afflatus fluttered to me right from the page. It’s not a new word to me (obviously; for one thing, I read it all those years ago when I read Ulysses for the first time), but it’s not one I use often. It’s a bit… erm, flatulent. Frankly, if you use it in earnest, you probably flatter yourself.

One response to “afflatus

  1. And just for another example, the Old Irish word for ‘fart’ (‘broimm’, or ‘broim’ in Modern Irish) has been etymologically related to Sanskrit ‘bráhma’ (‘pious effusion, spirit’), and therefore to ‘Brahmin’. I suppose how these Indo-European roots work out depends on which way the wind blows.

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