Tag Archives: languid

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

Reading: languor, languid, languish

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languor, languid, languish

The long, languorous days of summer are here. Depending on your disposition – and your reserves – you may move at a lush, delicious languid pace, or you may languish in torpid inactivity. Lolling about in otiose inaction is a luxury for those who have the means to thrive in spite of it; for those without all-access passes to the pleasure boat, a lack of activity is the anguish of languishing. It all comes down to who is peeling the grapes for whom.

And to the languid sense-shifts of our language.

It starts with classical Latin languere, which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to be faint, feeble, to be unwell, sick, to be languid, drowsy, to droop, wilt, to be dim or faint, to be weak or feeble, to be idle or inert.” It may be related, way back, to lax and slack. In our language, it gave us languish, which meant to enter or exist in a state of weakness and ill health. It has, over the centuries, gained figurative senses, such as wasting away out of love and longing. It is now often used to refer to resting neglected; the Corpus of Contemporary American English tells us that words it is often seen with include left, let, while, jail, continue, children, allowed, foster, and prison. It is a word of long anguish.

With that verb languish also came the noun languor, a word so slothful it can’t even be bothered to get the to go after the where you expect it. Languor first – back in the 1300s – referred to “pining, longing, sorrow, grief,” as Oxford says. Three centuries later it had come to mean physical or mental weariness, tiredness, or lethargy. It persists in a sense of summery torpor, but it also connects to languorous, which is now “characterized by pleasurable relaxation,” to quote Oxford one more time. When we look at what words are near languor, we find such as delicious, summer, loose-limbed, dreamy, exquisite, and tropical. It has become an Eva Longoria of the language.

But then there is that other adjective, languid, which partakes of the idiom of the id. Although it first – when we gained it, in the 1500s – spoke of weakness, fatigue, and inertia, it soon enough shifted to a sense of laconic slowness, the sin of sloth (itself such a word of economy of effort that it dropped the from slowth). But by the 1700s, and increasingly in the 1800s, idleness and leisure ad libitum became supportable and sustainable enough to be desirable. And now, near languid, we see words such as long, lady, pace, hand, grace, slow, air, days, body, pose, summer, ease, movement, and voice.

But in times of inactivity we also fantasize about activity. Andrew Lang wrote this poem in the later 1800s:

As one that for a weary space has lain
Lull’d by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours
They hear like Ocean on the western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

A century earlier, William Blake wrote this stanza in “Song: My silks and fine array”:

My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.

“Smiles and languished air.” There is a sun-bleached something about it, isn’t there? And really, that’s the heart of it. As delightful as languors may seem, as much as it may be fun to lie on the beach and sun ourselves, to drink wine and take water in wafting warmth, there is no great energy to it. At the first breath of coolth, the first free shrill wind, our vigour is reignited. Algernon Charles Swinburne captured it in “Dolores”:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

Many a moment in hammock-hung days, on white sofas in shady verandahs and around the corner from patio lunch prosciutto and mimosas, and draped on lawn or beach, have taught us all that there may be vice in languour. But rapture? We’ll get to that… in a few months. Relax.


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