Tag Archives: etymology of euphuism

There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

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