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The wax in the phrase "wax philosophical" is a pretty strange bird. Its wax is obviously not the ordinary definition of wax, which my dictionary summarizes as an "oily, water-resistant substance", a definition which also serves as a fair summary of other, closely related "waxes", as in earwax or beeswax.

Neither is, I think, the wax in "wax philosophical" referring to another sense of wax, as in to grow, and which I know best in reference to the Moon "waxing and waning"; it means, as best I know, that the Moon is shrinking and growing in size. So is waxing philosophical "growing philosophical"? Sounds pretty strange to me.

The truth is, I only know how to use this set phrase, and can't really break it down into its constituents. It seems fairly archaic; the philosophical isn't even in the standard canonical form of an adverb, with no ending "–ly". So I was wondering three things: What is the canonical definition of wax as its being used here? In what other ways can you wax? Finally, if wax is acting as a verb here, why is it philosophical, as an adjective, and not philosophically as an adverb?

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Bonus question: Did the noun wax and the putative verb wax originate from the same word? –  Uticensis Apr 18 '11 at 23:45
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I guess you can see by now it's possible to wax many things besides furniture. Wax lyrical comes to mind first for me, though I knew there were several alternatives. But it is interesting that most logically plausible states can't be waxed, or at least don't seem to be. And there does seem to be a certain air of 'set phrase' about the ones we do use. Perhaps that's just because the verb to wax in this sense is archaic outside the lunar context. –  FumbleFingers Apr 19 '11 at 0:11
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Wax on. Wax off. –  Sam Apr 19 '11 at 0:45
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An old headline in The Onion: "Man Waxes Patriotic, Truck" –  ShreevatsaR Oct 9 '11 at 9:49
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5 Answers 5

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster gives sense 3 for 3wax:

3: to assume a (specified) characteristic, quality, or state : become <wax indignant> <wax poetic>”

COCA gives a nice list of adjectives that are used this way with the verb wax:

 WAX ELOQUENT
 WAX ENTHUSIASTIC
 WAX EUPHORIC
 WAX INDIGNANT
 WAX LYRICAL
 WAX NOSTALGIC
 WAX PHILOSOPHIC
 WAX PHILOSOPHICAL
 WAX POETIC
 WAX PROFESSIONAL
 WAX RHAPSODIC
 WAX SENTIMENTAL

When I saw this question, I thought of the phrase “wax poetic” before “wax philosophical”. Indeed, “poetic” occurs 88 times in the corpus with verb wax compared to just 30 for “philosophical”.

And of course there is the Sponge album and song “Wax Ecstatic”.

EDIT: Google N-gram usage data for wax + the above adjectives, with credit to hippietrail:

N-gram data for "wax" + adjective

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Definitely, the most popular ones in my dictionary would be wax lyrical and wax philosophical. –  Jimi Oke Apr 18 '11 at 23:56
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I was hoping for "wax stupid". –  Malvolio Apr 19 '11 at 0:22
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The Google Ngram viewer makes a thing of beauty from these phrases and the winners are not the ones I expected. Sometimes it crashes the site though! ngrams.googlelabs.com/… –  hippietrail Apr 19 '11 at 1:32
    
+1 for Sponge reference. And of course the excellent answer. –  Josh Kovach Apr 19 '11 at 4:13
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As I understand it, to wax means to grow: if you wax philosophical, you grow philosophical, which probably means you become philosophically-minded, at least for the moment, and you occupy yourself with philosophical thoughts.

This is the same construction as when you grow old: old and philosophical are best considered subject complements, which is why they are adjectives, not adverbs.

[Edited:] According to Etymonline.com, both come from the Proto-Germanic verb *wakhsan, "to increase, grow", which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *wegs-, an extended form of the base *aug-, "to increase". Other dictionaries render this form as *owegs- or *awegs-. It is related to augment, which has come to us through Latin augeo, "to increase", and to Greek auxô, also "to increase".

However, a Dutch etymological dictionary, De Vries (4rd edition, 1997, p. 819), is undecided about the etymology of the substance wax (Dutch was, which is indisputably cognate) and gives Proto-Germanic *wahsa as a possible origin, related to English weave. The Proto-Indo-European root would then be **weg-/we-, "weave".

The great Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal (article Was (II) from 1988) mentions both origins and says the matter is still undecided. It notes that Latin cera, the substance wax, comes from the same root as Latin cresco, "to grow", which might support a parallel relation in Proto-Germanic; the substance wax would then be "what grows slowly", as the bees add to it incrementally (yes, increment comes from Latin cresco). Note that the Latin words are no cognates of our word: they come from PIE *ker-, "knead", the origin of our words ceramic (through Greek kerannumi, "to knead") and crescent (through Latin cresco).

However, adds the WNT, modern German has Wabe, "honeycomb", which comes from aforementioned PIE *we-, "weave", and may very well be related to the substance wax; in addition, Dutch sometimes had een(e) was ("a wax", as opposed to simply "wax") well into the 17th century, which might indicate that the word referred to the piece of wax that constitutes a honeycomb.

A German etymological dictionary, Köbler (1995), is very succinct, but appears to consider the PIE root *we- cognate to PIE *wegs-.

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@Cerberus What is the official definition of a subject complement? :) –  Uticensis Apr 19 '11 at 0:36
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@Billare: It is a lexical category unto itself: I am a man (a man), you are foolish (foolish), she became fed up (fed up), they seemed trustworthy (trustworthy). It is the complement that is used with copulae (verbs like to be, become, etc.) and it qualifies the subject. Cf. the object complement, which only occurs with a kind of verb whose name escapes me, as in I painted the house black (black), she makes me mad, they called her a whore, etc. –  Cerberus Apr 19 '11 at 1:07
    
@Cerberus: You do not mention -- this is perhaps self-evident for you, that the "grow" sense of wax is very much alive in modern German: wachsen - to grow, die Erwachsenen : the adults (= the grown-ups). Also the imagery for growth is often from plants, so the relation between growing and interweaving (like roots, branches of trees, neighbouring plants of a bush, etc.) is quite natural. –  ogerard Apr 19 '11 at 7:06
    
@ogerard: Hmm the interweaving leaves and roots might be a clue. I am aware of the modern German verb, but I do not know all its connotations. In Dutch, it is pretty much even deader than in English. The verb is archaic, as in the "wassende maan" (waxing moon); we do have neutral "volwassene" (adult, Erwachsene) and old-fashioned/formal "gewas" (domesticated plant). There is also the archaic word "wasdom", maturity. To be honest I do not feel this connotation of weaving at all in Dutch: it is rather like a plain, gradual increase; but, who knows, it might have been there in the beginning. –  Cerberus Apr 19 '11 at 11:33
    
@Cerberus: before reading all this interesting material on wax, I interpreted "to wax lyrical" in a mix of "to turn into" and "to quickly apply a polish of", something usually self-deprecatory or unnatural, a kind of temporary madness. The relation with the moon could be : to become philosophical/lyrical/etc. (in a lunatic way) as the moon waxes. –  ogerard Apr 19 '11 at 15:28
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Well, for one thing, it seems archaic because, outside the lunar context, it is archaic. Other usages are ironic, poetic, or examples of Wardour Street English: "He waxed wroth, and spake with an angry oath." That sort of thing

Here's the definition from NOAD:

wax 2 verb [ intrans. ] (of the moon between new and full) have a progressively larger part of its visible surface illuminated, increasing its apparent size. • poetic/literary become larger or stronger : his anger waxed. • [with complement ] begin to speak or write about something in the specified manner : they waxed lyrical about the old days.

The etymology is OE weaxen via Germanic; similar to German wachsen (to grow). NOAD gives a slightly different etymology for the noun: OE wex, weax, Germanic origin, similar to German Wachs.

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Is it actually archaic? I've certainly heard and used it in conversation many times in my life, several times a year at least. It's most commonly paired with some form of "poetic" or "philosophic," and less commonly but still regularly with "eloquent" or "nostalgic." How infrequently must a word be used to qualify as archaic? –  Matthew Frederick Apr 19 '11 at 2:54
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Michael Quinion at World Wide Words agrees that wax=to grow is a difficult idiomatic form to understand in the context of these "wax____ " phrases, pointing out that in common use they essentially mean "to communicate in the way described." He continues:

Sometimes there’s a hint that the person is doing so increasingly — becoming expansive in his language, figuratively increasing or enlarging the specified quality — but that’s present rarely enough that a connection with the “grow” sense of wax can’t be assumed. However, a link exists, since the usage perpetuates one old sense of the verb, “become or turn”, with a nod to another, in which wax before an adjective meant to gradually increase that quality or become it.

In my own brief search of Google books, I found wax eloquent the furthest back of the COCA list excerpted here. From Bracebridge Hall, 1822:

http://books.google.com/books?id=NWodAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA29&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0Ii-4HTGlJNCHhcdp-34odNSByJA&ci=101%2C1337%2C762%2C155&edge=0

And found less abstract phrases much further back like wax bigger in John Rider's Bibliotheca Scholastica, 1589, in a definition of pubero.

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I bet someone could wax genial. At least I feel that would be an apt description of (perhaps you know the moment) someone revealing himself to be obviously on my side and supportive of me, for example in a conversation :) Suddenly you feel at home, at ease and you can lose your pretenses.

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protected by RegDwigнt Oct 9 '11 at 13:48

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