You need not be lengthy if you can be widthy.

Have you seen this word widthy before? You probably have not. Have you considered why that might be?

Widthy seems, plainly, to be a natural counterpart to lengthy. Spatial dimensions include both length and width, after all. And yet.

Is it that the counterpart to lengthy is in fact breadthy? After all, broad – though not as commonly used here and now by us as such – is the true old direct counterpart to long; look at modern German: for ‘long’ it has lang, but for ‘wide’ it has breit, which is related to broad. And broad, via umlaut, is the source of breadth just as long is the source of length.

But breadthy is not in use either. And, like widthy, it really never has been. Until now, that is.

So, first of all, why lengthy? Why not just long

For the sake of mild euphemism, it seems. Length is, after all, not always so good. Consider some of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for it. John Adams, 1759: “I grow too minute and lengthy.” Benjamin Franklin, 1773: “An unwillingness to read any thing about them if it appears a little lengthy.” Thomas Paine, 1795: “In the mean time the lengthy and drowsy writer of the pieces signed Camillus held himself in reserve to vindicate every thing.”

Did you notice another thing? Yes, all three authors I’ve quoted were prominent figures in the American Revolution. The word lengthy first appeared in America in their time, and was for a long time (and still to some extent is) considered an Americanism. And all three seem to have prized brevity in speech and writing, or at least to have allowed that cogency is valuable. But when apologizing or deprecating, rather than use the blunt long, they use the, uh, lengthier (and thus slightly more cushioned) lengthy.

It’s not that lengthy is always negative, especially lately. But consider whether you’d use it in place of long for things that are undoubtedly better for being longer. “A lengthy baguette”? Well, that sounds silly because we more often associate lengthy with less physical characteristics, perhaps (nothwithstanding “a lengthy journey,” which could be referring to long time as much as distance). But “a lengthy slow dance with my darling”? Ouch… sounds like you’re impatient to move on from dancing.

So is this why we don’t (or didn’t) have widthy and breadthy? I suspect that has something to do with it. Width and breadth are not so often apologized for. One can have a great breadth of knowledge and education, for instance, or of perspective. A store or a library may have a breadthy selection. Breadthiness could be intoxicating; it could leave a person breathy – or breathless.

And why, by the way, do we have width when we have breadth? In truth, as I’ve pointed out, breadth is the more natural original counterpart to length; width referred originally – and still does, in some contexts – to expanse or extent in any and all directions. You travel far and wide, for instance, over the whole wide world. If your eyes are open wide, they are open top to bottom as much as side to side. Certainly wide has always had an available sense referring specifically to side-to-side dimension, and that has increasingly come to dominate, but it still has a, uh, widthier range.

And anyway, when you see widthy, you know what it means, don’t you? If you look at breadthy, you might misread it as breathy, or perhaps you might get stuck on the bread part. So I like widthy. It seems that we didn’t get the word 250 years ago because no American statesman ever felt the need to apologize for going too wide (hmm, perhaps if they had instead been sportsball players…). 

And it’s true: don’t apologize for being widthy. Just do.

One response to “widthy

  1. John Pickering, in his Vocabulary (1816), devotes a page and half to lengthy, arguing that it differs usefully from long. He quotes an English friend who opined that at one time lengthy was not unknown in Britain, but is now deprecated as an Americanism.

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