Grammar Guerilla: Waxing Poetic Not Poetically

A Waxing Crescent Moon

Sportscaster Dick Enberg died at 82 today. One writer recalled him “waxing poetically” while calling a ball game. To wax poetically suggests that one is polishing one’s car while reciting Keats but that is not what the writer intended. Enberg may have waxed poetic but he did not “wax poetically.” This is not pedantry, i.e., undue attention to detail. The verb to wax has several senses, but in this context the meaning has been fixed since 971. Let us hear nothing of the dodge, “the meanings of words change.” They certainly do but the meaning of the verb to wax, in this context, has not changed. We may not justify every abuse by appeal to “description vs. prescription.” The verb to wax, used in this context, means to grow or to increase. Thus, a moon is said to wax, i.e., to increase or to wane (to decrease). What the writer mean to say is that Dick Enberg was describing a ball game prosaically, i.e., using straightforward language (“the shortstop threw the ball to first”) but after an outstanding play (e.g., a double play), Enberg waxed poetic. His language or grew increasingly became poetic. “The batter hit a rocket but the shortstop rifled the ball to first” He used metaphors to convey the drama of the moment.

Remember, in this context, to wax means to grow or to increase. Its opposite is to wane or to decrease. The verb to wax has other senses, several of them derived from the sense, to increase.” Not all of them, however, are related. One of my favorites means to defeat thoroughly, i.e., “In 1980, the Huskers waxed the Hawkeyes 57–0. In recent years, however, their fortunes have waned. With the arrival of Coach Frost, the hopes of Nebraska fans are waxing again.”

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