I have a few questions about the verb 'to languish.'

  1. In the OED, it suggests that this word must be used for a living thing. Couldn't it be used metaphorically for something like an idea or a literary genre that has a kind of "life?"

  2. Most usage suggests that languish cannot have an object. Can't languish be used with a prepositional phrase (with an object of course), for instance? Can something languish into a pale imitation of itself? This usage (languish into) was more common 200 years ago but has almost died out according to ngram. Any ideas on why?

Any clarification would be greatly appreciated!

(I posted this in the wrong place at first, apologies for repost)

  • 1
    In re: 1, for sure, positively, 100%. In re: 2, I haven't seen this form to my memory, but a poetic license grants broad freedoms.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 23:03
  • 4
    Over 800 written instances of the idea languished in Google Books suggest you've misunderstood the OED entry. What I see (in the full OED) is that they preface their definition 1a: to decline in health; to weaken with (Of a person, animal, or plant), but that caveat doesn't apply to, for example, their definition 1c: To fail to make progress; to be unsuccessful. Or indeed their definition 4a: Of an activity or emotion: to grow slack, lose vigour or intensity. Transitive 3a: To cause to languish is Obs. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 20:28
  • Certainly something like a computer program development project can "languish" when the company pulls "resources" (people) from it without actually killing it. (Have seen this many times.) As to "languish into ...", isn't "into ..." a prepositional phrase modifying "languish", vs the object of "languish"?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 20:14
  • Languish cannot be used with a direct object; a prepositional phrase contains an object of the preposition, but not of the verb in the clause. So there is no contradiction in saying that languish is intransitive while accepting accepting “languish into a pale imitation of itself”. As such, I think you can pretty much just get rid of the second part of your question—it's based on a misunderstanding of what an object really is. Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 8:03

2 Answers 2


As FumbleFingers notes in a comment above, a Google Books search turns up many instances in which authors use the verb languished in association with inanimate objects. Here is an Ngram chart for three such phrases—"idea languished" (blue line), "ideas languished" (red line), and "languished unread" (green line)—for the period 1850–2005:

The chart indicates that figurative use of languished didn't catch on until the later decades of the nineteenth century, but it is by no means rare or suspect today. The first matches that a Google Books search finds for each of the three wordings are as follows. From "Philanthropy in War," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (February 1877):

Thus, nipped in the bud, the idea languished till, in the summer of 1870, the war between France and Germany gave it a new impetus.

From Rene Bazin, "With All Her Heart," in The Living Age (December 18, 1897):

There were sweat-drops visible upon uncovered necks, and now and then the tap of a small boot-heel was heard upon the floor, or the drumming of five fingers upon the table. There were no more happy inspirations. Ideas languished and vanished away in daydreams, and M. Lemarie's death was already forgotten.

And from Louis Vance, The Bronze Bell (1909):

Now Quain's letter to Labertouche went by this quicker route and so anticipated Amber's arrival at the capital of India by about a week; during all of which time it languished unread.

From these examples it should be clear that Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) is fully justified in including definition 2(b) in its entry for languish:

languish vi (14c) ... 2 ... b : to suffer neglect {the bill languished in the Senate for eight months}

Definition 2(b) has appeared in editions of the Collegiate Dictionary series since the Eighth Collegiate (1973)—so it seems fair to say that, if there ever was a widely enforced rule against using languish for nonliving things, Merriam-Webster gave up on it more than four decades ago.

With regard to direct objects, all of the definitions of languish in the Eleventh Collegiate involve the word's use as an intransitive verb. That would seem to preclude (or at least leave unrecognized by Merriam-Webster) the use of direct objects along the lines of "He languished his life away"; but it certainly doesn't present any barrier to using languish with prepositional phrases, such as "Her paintings languished in a musty warehouse."


In the literal sense, the word can only be used for a living object, but it is a good way of metaphorically and poetically illustrating the degradation and demise of an inanimate one as a style of anthromorphosis.

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