Etymology of the Marvellous

Addendum: Awesome Etymology

If a little philology does not seem too distasteful, I would like to savor the etymology of maravilloso. Before one deals with representations of marvelous events, the lived experience of the marvelous in reality would imply a heightened aesthetic awareness of something perceived as amazing in daily life. As with the nearly obsolete meanings of awful, meaning something that is “awe-ful,” that fills the perceiver with awe, such that it stuns the mind and makes the jaw drop, so we find awesome the most popular substitute, thanks to youth culture, especially among extreme sports enthusiasts. The term marvelous, spelled with one –l– is derived from the Latin mirabilis, “able to instill awe or wonder,” from Latin mirari, “to wonder at, be amazed.”

How does it change over time from mirabilis to marvelous? It is not too hard to see, if you know how –b— becomes “softened” to –v—in many Greek and Spanish vocalizations. Throughout the changes we are dealing with borrowings, loan-words that change over time in various vernaculars. Mir– to mer– and then to mar-. Obviously there is a vowel change of the -i- for –e- in the alternatives such as French merveille and merveilleux, and again to -a- in Middle English marvail. The Latin adjective mirus meaning “wonderful” and the verbal stem mira– give rise through borrowings into common English words mirage, admire, mirror, miracle (“a little wonder”), and of course from merveille to marvel. It is apparent that the meanings of wonder and amazement, even bewilderment and astonishment, have been retained throughout time. As I have used the terms in my essay on The Lost Steps, mirabile dictu (“marvelous to tell,” or “amazing to say”); mirabile auditu (“wonderful to hear,” “astonishing to listen to”) and mirabile visu (“a marvel to see,” “a wonder to behold”), the past participial verb forms of the Latin ending in –ῡ is an unusual substantive, called the Supine, which is used to modify a special set of adjectives having to do with the senses and manners of speaking or remembering. Therefore, an aesthetic awareness is what one would expect with the adjectival mirabilis or mirabile. Naturally, that which astonishes is likely to strike through perception, touch, smell, etc. If a person is struck with awe, wonder, or astonishment, the effect is apt to leave the experiencer spell-bound, silent, drop-jawed, stunned, entranced, enchanted, or frozen in awe.

Horrible Verbicide

Problem is, when such words of high affectivity—marvelous, wonderful, awful, awesome, terrific, terrible, tremendous, horrid, and horrible—are used too frequently or very casually to describe ordinary happenings, as if to say something is merely “good,” “well made,” or “impressive,” (and the corresponding negatives), then the profound, deep meaning of them becomes worn down or diminished. For example, a “terrific ice-cream” will hardly terrify, but may taste good, just as a terrible or horrid movie will not likely shake the ground or make one’s hair stand on end, but rather be poorly made or distasteful to watch. In the United Kingdom, the word magic has been taken out of truly enchanting experience by the all-too-common hyperbolic exclamation “Magic!” to express simply “I am pleased.” So, too, especially in Scotland, the exclamation “Brilliant!” is used for something–for the moment–commonly very good, rather than something uncommonly bright or amazingly dazzling. Awful has gone the way of terrible, both objects of verbicide (“word killing”). It’s likely the same will be in store for awesome by it present-day inaccurate usage. Somehow wondrous has retained some of its wonder, perhaps because it seems archaic, either biblical or literary, and has escaped frequent, casual or common usage. Alas, we now have to exaggerate such words of wonder and amazement, just as Billy Crystal popularized, and thereby killed, the word marvelous (“ My dear, you look simply ma-a-arvelous!”) on the Saturday Night Live skit, using it excessively as a term of gushing, false flattery, in the manner of the super-suave Latin actor Ricardo Montalban. I ask you: Is anything or anyone simply or truly glorious these days? Is anything really gorgeous, except the juicy, done-to-a-turn Sunday roast? –David

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