On Tears of Joy and Gladness
For what purpose and in what linguistic context?
- Written or oral, and if so, what is the context of each?
- Talking to someone at a pub?
- Declaiming poetry, and if so, is it open verse or otherwise?
- High register or casual?
- Is this a medical audience, perhaps even ophthalmologists?
- Is it for the stranger sitting next to you on the city bus?
I myself would use any the more run-of-mill alternatives already given, or perhaps something more lyrical if sufficiently stirred, ranging from the commonplace to the poetic:
- I was touched, stirred, or moved.
- I could only say awwwwwww and smile like a happy idiot.
- I got all choked up.
- I got all teary-eyed.
- My eyes misted over.
- I spilt tender tears.
- The touching scene so warmed the cold cockles of my heart that my eyes welled up with tears of joy unlooked for — and all the more welcome for it.
The thing is that we more often associate tears with negative emotions than we do with positive ones. However, any emotion that’s powerful enough can so overwhelm us as to provoke a lachrymal response. However, English doesn’t distinguish in a single word the tears of gladness from tears of sadness.
In either case, we just say that someone was crying or weeping, but that does not tell the full tale. The tears of the plaint look the same as those that spring from sorrow’s opposite. As one of the Wise one remarked in a bittersweet parting:
I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.
If not all tears are evil nor all weeping that of sadness, how do we tell the one from the other. We’ve no choice but to add other words to tell the difference between the two, for we have no special word in English that would immediately distinguish the bitter tears of dyscatastrophe and sadness from the sweet tears of eucatastrophe and gladness.
Metaphorically then, tears can be either bitter or they can be sweet, or perhaps both at once. In reality of course, both are equally salty, despite the Chicago song “Make Me Smile” inviting one to “Cry sweet tears of joy”.
It is this inherent ambiguity of the different kinds of tears that resists a single word to tell the bitter from the sweet, let alone from the bittersweet, that makes this question a difficult to one to answer succinctly and unambiguously. Tears can even suddenly transform from one form to the other, as the psalmist wrote in Psalms 30:5, when the night’s weeping turns to joy with the coming of the dawn.
I have already given several common ways of saying it, but if you want a more high-falutin’ term, both lachrymous and lachrymose exist, with the latter being by far the more common of the two.
The OED gives two subsenses for its sense two of that word:
- 2a. Given or ready to shed tears. Of the eyes: Suffused with tears.
- 2b. Of a tearful character; calculated to provoke tears; mournful.
Although sense 2a gives you want you want, sense 2b’s tenebrous overtones might risk miscommunication if the full context were not well established.
The OED has a bunch of entries starting with lachrym-, but most are confined to technical medical usage today:
- † lachrymable [adj.]
- † lachrymabund [adj.]
‖ lachryma Christi [n.]
- lachrymal [adj.]
- › lachrymal canal, duct, gland, sac, lachrymal bone, sinus, lachrymal fistula ← lachrymal
- lachrymary [adj.]
- lachrymate [v.]
- ˈlachrymating [vbl. n.] ← lachrymate
- lachrymation [n.]
- lachrymator [n.]
- lachrymatory [adj.]
- † lachryme [n.]
- † lachryˈmental [adj.]
- lachrymiform [adj.]
- lachrymist [n.]
- lachrymogenic [adj.]
- ˌlachrymo-ˈnasal [adj.]
- lachrymose [adj.]
- ˈlachrymosely [adv.] ← lachrymose
- lachryˈmosity ← lachrymose
- lachrymous [adj.]
Whereas for the more expected lacr- prefix, it has next to nothing: one is lacrimal which it says is an alternate spelling of lachrymal, and the other is the unassimilated foreign phrase lacrimae rerum†, the “tears of things” from Virgil’s Aeneid.
† [For once, I strongly advise following the link and reading the brief Wikipedia article in full, for there is true poetic beauty there in some of the English translations.]
A Minor Spelling Mystery
I wonder where the funny spelling of the English lachrymose (etc.) came from.
For those familiar with the Requiem Masses of Mozart or Verdi, or even Berlioz if you’re into that sort of thing, you will recognize these famous words from the Dies Irae set to their own movements by those composers. The very first word is the one from which our modern one in English ultimately derives:
Lacrimosa dies illa
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. Amen.
It all comes back to a lacrima meaning a tear in Latin, which gives us lágrima in modern Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician alike, and llàgrima in neighboring Catalan. It’s still just lacrima in Italian just like the “original” Latin, and similarly still stressed on the the ante-penult as all four Iberian orthographies make clear via their explicit diacritics.
French has whittled it all the way down to la larme for tear, but liquide lacrymal is still known: notice they have a y there now in French, which seems to be where we got ours from, but still no h as in the English version.
What I do not understand is where the extra h came from in English lachrymose, or the y for that matter. Latin didn’t have it; as shown above, Latin had lacrimōs-us for the adjective and lacrima for the 1st-declension feminine noun.
The ‑chry‑ sequence looks much more Greek to me than the ‑cri‑ Latin sequence, but we got it from Latin. But modern Greek, I think, just has δακρυσμένος (“dakrysménos”) there from δάκρυ(α) (“dákry(a)”), so I don’t know why the Latin-derived word should now have a pseudo-Greek spelling in English.
All I can guess is that the medievals somehow got the ‑cri‑ part in Latin lacrimosa confused with χρῡσ-ός, (“chrȳs-ós”) Greek for gold and common in chemistry and taxonomy: chrysoberyl is a yellowish-green gem and the golden eagle is Aquila chrysaëtos. Must ask Cerberus.
Then again, lacrimosa and dakrysménos and such are close enough to make me wonder about some previously unknown Grimm d–l swap back in PIE. Must ask John Lawler.
As mentioned in potentially ephemeral comments below, Janus has explained that d–l swaps were not wholly unknown in early Latin variants. Lest his comment be someday lost, I copy it here for posterity [emphasis mine]:
Quite unrelated to the above, and only a comment on the very last bit of this answer: the d/l switch is not all that uncommon in Latin. Original initial d’s occasionally show up in Latin as l’s. Compare lingua with its Oscan (or is it Umbrian?) cognate fangvam and earlier Latin form dingua, as well as the Archaic Latin form dacruma/dacrima.
So it seems more certain that the Latin word and the Greek word were related after all. But why the medievals thought to use ‑ch‑ as though it had had a chi not a kappa in the Greek, we will probably never know. It smells like what Wikipedia is referring to when it writes:
From the 16th century onward, English writers who were scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to link English words to their Graeco-Latin counterparts. They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek ἄχος (“akhos”), and so forth.
Considering that lachrymose entered English during the 17th century, is seems to be of the same sort of thing as thyme: late medieval Latin often simply had timum or timus, but then somebody noticed that Greek had θύμον (θύμος < θύειν to burn sacrifice) so they when back and put in letters we never said, first into the Latin thymum and then into English thyme.
The story of why we spell the River Thames with an h, a word which King Ælfred himself spelt merely Temes around 893, is even sillier, when 610 years after that the Rolls of Parliament first recorded it with an h in 1503:
A Ryvere called the Thamyse, otherwyse called the Temmesse.
Here there is no Greek theta in anything original, so they just got it wrong. However, unlike other notoriously respelled words like author < autor and Anthony < Antoni(us), the River’s name was too commonly said to tolerate an erroneous theta pronunciation.