languid, languish

If you’re lolling about with little to do, take a look at these lines of verse:

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

—“The Lotos-eaters,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And I am weary of the anguish
Increasing winters bear;
Weary to watch the spirit languish
Through years of dead despair.

—“Stanzas,” Emily Brontë

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,
Whose head upon my knee to-night
Rests for a while, as if grown light
With all our dances and the sound
To which the wild tunes spun you round

—“Jenny,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
’Tis too soon for hartshorn tea

—“A Receipt to Cure the Vapors,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth

—“The South,” Emma Lazarus

Flowers whose long regrets and stems appear
Drenched in a lonely vase to languish there…

—“Hérodiade,” by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated by Henry Weinfield

Love listens, and paler than ashes,
Through his curls as the crown on them slips,
Lifts languid wet eyelids and lashes,
And laughs with insatiable lips

—“Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thine, thine the one grace we implore is,
Who would live and not languish or feign,
O sleepless and deadly Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

—also “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

You see it, right? Languid is good; languish is bad. And of course you knew it already, but there it is. A languid afternoon or evening is delightfully lazy, slow-moving, like a world swimming in honey. Languishing is anguishing at length, failing in strength and will and wit.

And yet, they are siblings. They come from the same root, the root that also gives us languor. And, as it happens, languor came first to the language, around the year 1300; languid followed not long after. It was another nearly three centuries before languish showed its face. But it all traces back to Latin languere ‘be faint or unwell’ and its derived forms languidus ‘weak, sluggish, faint’ and languor ‘faintness, weakness, apathy’. (Languish is based on French languisse and English languysshen, forms of the verb languir, from languere.)

So, yes, the negative sense came first. And indeed, even languid has more negative than positive senses listed in the dictionary. But the first positively toned uses of it showed up by the early 1700s. Perhaps the liquid elegance of the word seems to have led it along to less malign angles in the language, but we should note that languor and languorous have a similar development: languor not so great, languorous not so bad—and the timeline for the development of their senses is similar, suggesting that pleasurable leisure came to be more appreciated beginning in the 1700s, at least in the language. (By the way, language is not related etymologically.)

Now I’m wondering lazily whether we might not have some other such pairs to match languid and languish. To go with anguish we could have anguid, but that is the name of a family of slowworms and related lizards (hmmm). A cryptid might go shady and become crytpish, but no one has said so. There is a rare verb splendish meaning ‘make splendid’; perhaps we could find something bad about that to make the match. There is a verb livish; but it means ‘alive-ish’ and is pronounced as such, so it’s not an actual sibling of livid, but it does have a contrariety to it. 

There is no ravid to match ravish, nor brandid to match brandish, at least not yet. There is no horrish to match horrid, nor fervish to go with fervid. And let us never ask for any use of covish. And there is no lavid to go with lavish, unless we make it so, but perhaps we should: something that is lavid might be rotten with fugxury. Oh, and if you publish something and it doesn’t splendish in print, is it publid? We could decide it is.

Well. I’ll just let that lie there and see where it gets to, if it does. I think I’m overdue now for a bit of rest.

Sleep, the fresh dew of languid love, the rain
Whose drops quench kisses till they burn again.

—“Epipsychidion,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

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