Bill Long 11/01/04
I have never forgotten my first acquaintance with St. Anselm of Canterbury, the 12th century Christian theologian who wanted to "prove" the existence of God through argument. He formulated the ontological argument for God's existence, one of the three (or four, depending on how you count) classic arguments for God's existence (the others are the cosmological and the teleolological arguments, and some would include Kant's moral argument as a fourth).
I always loved his argument even though I didn't believe it for a second. He asked you to imagine something "than which nothing greater can be conceived." Then, after you have done that, you must conclude that such a great thing is God. And, since the property of existence is superior to that of mere imagination, what you imagined must exist. Thus, God exists. So simple and so profoundly flawed. But this isn't the place to tear Anselm apart. I only tell this story because I spent several hours imagining something "than which nothing greater can be conceived." The word for today, deliquesce, is a word than which nothing more smooth-sounding can be conceived.
The Scientific Meaning of Deliquesce
Before getting to science, let the word roll off your tongue. Deliquesce. It may even be more attractive to the ear than insusurration. Deliquesce has a scientific meaning, and a meaning in the study of gems--the process of crystal dissolution as a result of absorption of water. One might say that sylvite, carnalite and some halites (like salt) deliquesce when exposed to water. I note something that would take us far afield from this essay, that the opposite of deliquesce in gemology is effloresce--where a gem becomes powdery and crumbles when becoming excessively dry.* But deliquesce has a powerful range
[*In this connection, I wondered at first if "effloresce" is another word that means its opposite. See the essay on invalescence. It usually means to flower forth or to open in full bloom, such as a flower that "effloresces," or a student whose intellectual efforts were efflorescing, but with respect to minerals it suggests a diminishing or crumbling. The OED "saves" this meaning of effloresce by suggesting that the crystalline surface that changes actually changes to "flowers" or fine powders. The "flowers" here meant is "flour." Thus, if a crystal effloresces, it changes to flour. Ok, now I get it.]
of meanings in figurative speech, which ought not be lost.
It means to melt away gradually, and often is used humorously. For example, OW Holmes, Sr, in the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), says: "I have known several very genteel idiots whose whole vocabulary had deliquesced into some half dozen expressions." This is a usage that can profitably be recaptured as a way to describe the inarticulateness all around us. The only question, however, is whether deliquesce is the right word to use, since it suggests that at one time the person may have had, to quote Holmes, more than six expressions.
But its more visual signification can make it a synonym for "fade" and it can be applied to a sound that gradually deliquesces at the end of the second movement of the symphony or to a person who deliquesces when ignored by everyone in the group or to our arguments that deliquesce when we are satisfied by a turn of events. General MacArthur might well have said, "Old soldiers never die. They just deliquesce." Since this is flu season as I write, a humorous note from a patient to a doctor is worth quoting:
"I am suffering from my old complaint, the hay-fever (as it is called). My fear is, perishing by deliquescence; I melt away in nasal and lachrymal profluvia."
I have a friend who has had a runny nose for three weeks. Maybe I should tell her that no one has ever perished by deliquescence, even as she throws away another soggy tissue.
Deliquesce and the Language of Love
But ultimately I like the word deliquesce because it perfectly captures the dynamics of love. What man doesn't want a woman who deliquesces in his arms; what woman doesn't want a man whose words lead her to that deliquescence? In that regard, deliquiscence is a stronger term than its near neighbor deliquium, which can suggest not simply a "melting" but also a "maudlin" frame of mind. Carlyle says, "To fall into mere unreasoning deliquium of love and admiration was not good." Of course it is true that sooner or later the melting mood has to be supplemented by the practical mood and other realities of life, but a woman never forgets her past occasions of deliquescence, whether or not she rues or embraces those memories today.
Closing with Humor
But humor almost always takes off the rough and sensitive edges of love's memories. So, we close with a 1948 quotation, by T.H. White, "A ghostly figure of the Virgin Mary...It was ghostly because Mrs. O'Callaghan had taken it into her head to give it a vigorous scrubbing...and this had taken off the paint. It had also taken off most of the left cheek, so that the Virgin now hoved (i.e., hovered) in her shadowy corner, chalk-white, leprous, and deliquescent." Poor Virgin Mary.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long