Wednesday, 23 September 2009

climax and ladder

The first occurance of climax in English was for the rhetorical device in which a number of ideas are arranged in order of ascending effectiveness. For instance:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Tennyson, Ulysses

Later it came to mean "the last or highest term of a rhetorical climax" and "the highest point of anything reached by gradual ascent; the culmination". The OED says that these latter two meanings "are due to popular ignorance and misuse of the learned word". Who says the OED is a descriptive dictionary?

Greek κλῖμαξ meant "ladder". It's from Proto-Indo-European *ḱlei- "to lean". The suffixed o-grade form *ḱloi-tr- became Old English hlǣdder, then English ladder. But what is that *-tr- supposed to be?


Glen Gordon said...

Would I be wrong to presume that *ḱloi-tr- simply means 'that which climbs' with the agent suffix *-tor- being zerograded in the inanimate gender?

vp said...

The word "crescendo" has followed the same path. Its original sense of "a passage of music gradually increasing in volume" is still current, but it is often (mis)used to mean a peak, as in "come to a crescendo".

goofy said...

Glen, no that doesn't sound wrong.

... still saving up for Fortson's Indo-European Language and Culture, 2nd edition...

Mattitiahu said...

Incredible! That borrowing never even occurred to me, despite the obvious similarity in shape!

Needless to say I will never forget the κλῖμαξ now.

I agree the *-tr as a nomina agentis suffix that Glen suggests sounds quite plausible and likely.