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The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations says that movie mogul Sam Goldwyn said:
“What we need is a story that starts with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.”
Unfortunately for the word climax the dictionary of quotations goes on to admit that this might not actually have been said, but instead invented in the spirit of Sam Goldwyn; a bit of an anticlimax.
But looking at the etymology of climax I can see that if the earthquake was big enough to open big cracks in the ground it might be handy to have a climax around because climax is in fact the Greek word for “ladder.”
Some dictionaries point out how English has anticipated the goal by using climax to mean “the top” when literally climax was merely a tool to get there.
But I think climax is a great example of those smarty-pants classicists back in the renaissance dragging Latin and Greek words into English.
Climax did make it into Latin from Greek, but before Greek the roots of climax are utterly logical.
Your basic ladder doesn’t work very well without something to lean it against. The American Heritage Dictionary gives an Indo-European root klei that also comes down to us in recline and incline; it means “to lean.”
A ladder leans so the Greeks and Romans called it a climax.
In fact our word lean evolved from the same Indo-European root.
In 1598 the document to first offer up this Latin/Greek word for English use was something called The Arte of English Poesie.
Poesy is a poem so you can tell right away that the author is keen on the power of words, symbolism and metaphor.
In fact the word he is trying to introduce is clyming an invented pseudo-Greek word describing a poetic technique the builds the force of the idea being expressed.
This is not our English word climbing although it only emphasizes my claim that these guys were smart-alecks making a pun like that.
In explaining what he means he actually says a clymax is a “ladder.”
Who “he” is is a bit of a mystery.
For centuries admirers of The Arte of English Poesie didn’t know who wrote it. Then in 1910 a keen observer saw a note that an author had made instructing their printer to use the same typeface as the book by another author named Puttenham.
Since the printer then used the same typeface as appears in The Arte of English Poesie everyone was satisfied that it must have been Puttenham who wrote the thing.
It seems a rocky conclusion to me and it must have to another keen observer also, who spent months establishing that it couldn’t have been Puttenham; and more months building a meticulous list of 14 criteria which only the true author could meet; and then suggesting another guy named Lumley who did meet the criteria.
Of course the results of such research can only represent a climax to the most hard core of History of English Literature students.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.