Comme on dit, l’empire empire.

That’s French for “As they say, the empire gets worse.” And if the empire’s failings are in the sky, you could say “L’empire empire dans l’empyrée” – “The empire gets worse in the empyrean.” Which is a phrase that could get some air from time to time.

But look at today’s word: empyre. What is its sense? Whence does it come? It looks like empire, but in some rakish old style, like vampyre and, um, umpyre; it looks like pyre, which is the same flame as burns within empyrean (celestial bodies are great balls of fire, after all); but somehow there is something… impure. Empirically, it seems impaired.

Well, it is imperfect; in fact, it is obsolete, not in use since about the time of Shakespeare’s birth, and of course spellings at that time were as fluid as fashion. But in its time it was neither imperial nor empyrean. It came from French, yes, but from that other empire – the one that means ‘get worse’, infinitive empirer, descended from Latin, formed from in (the one that connotes increase) and peior ‘worse’ (whence our pejorative).

Empyre has a pair, a modern English word descended from the same roots and meaning about the same thing: impair. But (o Fortuna imperatrix mundi) thanks to fortune impair has tricks and is mundane – we use it now as much to mean ‘impede’ or ‘intoxicate’ or other things that one might infer from terms such as impaired driving. We don’t mean specifically that the driving is made worse; well, we do, but we mean that it’s done by a person whose overall functioning is impaired, made worse (by intoxication, of course). Whereas if we said their driving was empyred, we would mean just specifically that it had been made worse. And if someone beleaguers you, you can say “You are empyring my day.” And if they hear “vampiring” it won’t go wildly astray.

And we can look at history and see how many empires have empyred our world, and we can say that incidents and accidents (and hints and allegations) empyre our lives. And if the form of this word makes us think that we want to toss some things on a pyre, well, so much the better – a word is best if it has extra flavours cooked in.

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