Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
Sounding the Depths II
On Abysses and Nadirs
The reason that bathos and its companions and relatives has never really entered into the language is that other terms were pressed into service in its stead. So, for example, the word pathetic, which really means "producing an effect upon the emotions [thus, a 'pathetic story' is one that stirs our emotions]," expanded its linguistic reach in the 20th century to mean "miserably inadequate; so poor as to be ridiculous." Nowadays this latter meaning is about the only way that people use the term, and it is employed by small and great alike to describe anything even slightly dissatisfying to the speaker. Younger people say it with a slight roll of the eyes. In the previous essay, I tried to make the case for reclaiming bathos in its stead.
But bathos never got off the ground, so to speak, for another reason and that is that there was a very substantial and well-attested similar word that goes back to the hoary Middle Ages in English. This word is actually five words--"abime, abysm, abysmus, abyssus, abyss." You get the idea, however. Let's look at it.
Staring at Abyss
The Greek progenitor of the word, 'abyssos,' can either be used as an adjective ("bottomless") or a substantive ("the deep"). Though the Greek mythological tradition had its primordial gigantomachy (the battle of the gods and titans), its traditions were not as rich as the Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern, especially as it related to the depths or the innermost parts of the world. Nevertheless, "abyssos" denoted the "great deep, the bottomless gulf, beleived in the old cosmogony to lie beneath the earth." When the word came into the English through the Latin and probably the French, it was spelled abime and then abisme, though the latter rhymed with "time." Our modern pronunciation follows the gradual change of the spelling to abysm or abyss.
You can easily imagine how the term would be of use to preachers as they dilated on the ultimate fate of the wicked (to get thrown into the eternal abyss). They could imagine all kinds of unfriendly inhabitants of those nether, infernal regions which would greet the unsaved with open arms or, probably, fangs. But, many secular writers used the word, also. Shakespeare has Prospero ask his daughter Miranda, "What seest thou else In the dark-backward and Abysme of Time (Tempest 1.2.50-51)?" Thus it is a word with much richer and deeper (pardon the pun) historical associations with theology and mythology than bathos, even though I am partial to the latter term.
Becoming a Verb; Becoming Absymal
I was surprised and delighted to discover that both abysm and abyss can be used as a verb to mean "to engulf." For example, Lowell, in his Poetical Works from 1860 said, "The drooping sea-weed hears, in night abyssed...the wave's receding shock." This attestation in the passive voice may be the most promising way to use the verb today: as a colorful synonym to "swallow up" or "engulf," but carrying the connotation of being swallowed up and plunged into the depths at the same time. "Abyssed as I was in my troubles, I didn't notice the entrance of a potential friend."
The usual way that abyss is used today, apart from the fundamentalist preachers who still want to send almost everyone to the abyss, is through the word abysmal. While my mother used to say to me with regularity that my performance was atrocious, I think that today's educated parent would use the word abysmal in its stead. Abysmal was used in the 19th century to express something deep or fathomless, and Coleridge even combined the thoughts in this and the previous essay by talking about the abysmal bathos of a fourpence (what might that mean?), but it is only in the 20th century that it took on the meaning we use primarily today: "In weakened state; of an exceptionally poor standard or quality; extremely bad." Now we speak quite eloquently about a country's abysmal human rights record or a president's abysmal record on certain issues. I would prefer to use bathysmal for this idea, keeping the more literal meaning of the abyss for use of abyss and its relatives.
A Word on (not Ralph) Nadir
Educated people will also talk about something being the nadir or lowest point of their life or experience. "The nadir of my tenure as a litigation attorney was losing a Social Security case before a testy and fully unsympathetic Administrative Law Judge." But in its origin the term, derived from the Arabic, simply means "opposite to," and was first used to express the concept as something "opposite to the zenith." Thus nadir became associated with the word zenith and was its opposite. By the 16th century it would mean "the point of the heavens diametrically opposite to the zenith." Not until the 19th century did the current usage begin to flourish (The historian Hallam talked about the seventh century as the nadir of the human mind in Europe...I wonder what the Venerable Bede would say about that, even though his floruit was in the eighth). It therefore doesn't carry the connotation of a deep, dark and bottomless region as does the word abyss, or the ocean-depth character of bathos.
So, to sum up these two mini-essays, abyss, bathos and nadir abide, these three, but the greatest (because most flexible) of these is bathos.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long