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Doing things with verve

It occurred to me to write a short essay about the word verve by chance. As a general rule, I try to stick to my last and stay away from Romance etymology, even though the logic of research occasionally makes me meddle with it. About two months ago near the street where I live (for a story to win confidence, it usually has to contain a few superfluous references to time, place, and exact numbers), I noticed an ad by a realty called “Verve” and decided that, if not only producers of energy drinks and admirers of female beauty but also real estate agents find it possible to adopt such a pompous name, there would be little harm in devoting a few lines to its use and history in this blog.

Verve goes back to Old French. It surfaced there in the eleven-hundreds, occurred rarely (as a rule, in the plural), and seems to have meant “talk” or perhaps “fantasies” before, in the seventeenth century, it acquired its modern sense “high spirits, animation, enthusiasm.” (More about this word’s original sense will be said below.) Also close to the end of that century verve appeared in English, endowed with an almost technical meaning “special bent, vein, or talent in writing” (OED). “Intellectual vigor, especially as manifest in literary productions; great vivacity of ideas and expression” became common from approximately 1870. In general use the word signifies “energy, vigor, spirit.”

For a long time verve must have been unintelligible to the English public. The OED quotes Ouida, who italicized the word as late as in 1863. But Ouida’s first language was French, and, her bizarre habits and penchant for ostentation notwithstanding, she may have been wary of sounding snobbish. It is certainly a high-flown word. (I am pleased to report that the house was sold in a week. This is what it means for a business to have an appealing name.) Today verve often graces reviews and articles dealing with music and all kinds of performances, and is expected to demonstrate their authors’ mastery of the language.

English lexicographers first treated verve as an intruder. It is absent from the early editions of Webster. The etymologists Mueller and Wedgwood ignored it, and Skeat featured it only in the fourth (last) edition of his dictionary. Sometimes verve appeared marked as an exclamation with a single reference: French. Modern English dictionaries, when they do not copy the “standard” etymology from French sources, often say: “Of dubious (uncertain, unknown) origin,” and indeed, as we will see, some doubts about its derivation remain. In 1886, after all the opinions on this matter had been offered and the best one seemingly agreed upon, August Scheler, an outstanding French etymologist, did not object to the solution rejected by most. In searching for the origin of a difficult word, it pays off to consult more reference works than one.

As usual, some conjectures have no justification. Such is tracing verve to fervor, because the initial consonants do not match. The same holds for such improbable etymons of verve as German werfen (Dutch verpen) “to throw,” Latin vertere “to turn” (here even the meanings are too remote), French vertige “dizziness; vertigo,” and French vertu “courage, valor; virtue.” But the oldest conjecture, though it was wide of the truth, found a curious justification in later scholarship. The first great French linguist of the post-medieval period was Gilles Ménage (1613-1692). He derived verve “enthusiasm” from Verbe Divin “Divine Word,” associated with The Son of God (filius Dei), the second person of the Trinity.

People jumping at sunset. © RossellaApostoli via iStock
Doing it with real verve. (People jumping at sunset. © RossellaApostoli via iStock)

A serious exploration of the etymology of verve, as of so many other French words, began with Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology. He cited Latin verva “ram’s head used as an ornament on the wall.” This may have been a so-called popular word, mot populaire, because it occurred only in an inscription. Readers of Latin prose may remember vervex “wether, castrated ram.” The connection between the animal name and verve was allegedly provided by words like Italian capriccio. Capriccio, caprice, capriole, and in English its abbreviated form caper refer us to Latin caper “goat,” an animal famous for its leaps and “capers.”

To buttress Diez’s conclusion, a clever argument has been offered. “Ram” designated not only the animal but also a siege weapon used to beat down walls, that is, a battering ram. The way from an efficient weapon to force and vigor is short. Diez’s explanation was accepted by some of his illustrious contemporaries, including Littré, the author of a celebrated French dictionary. However, all the words listed above, both French and Italian, have suffixes. A change from an animal name to an abstract noun would be unusual. Verve was also approached from Latin verber (or rather from its more frequent plural verbera) “lash, whip, flogging, blow.” The loss of final -r between Latin and French does not appear troublesome.

Diez also considered another derivation of verve, which he rejected but which despite his rejection ultimately won the day. In Old French, verve meant “talk” (sometimes “insincere talk” or possibly “fantasies”) and “proverb.” Definitive conclusions about its meaning in the medieval period are hard to draw, for Old French verve has been attested in few places, and it was traditionally coupled with serve. In some places, it had no other justification except as being a filler for rhyme. In the other Romance languages, verve has no cognates. Those who paid special attention to “talk” and “proverb” set up Latin verba “words” (the plural of verbum) as the etymon of verve. The sense development was reconstructed approximately so: from “words” to “(empty) talk,” further to “fantasies,” and finally to “animation.”

To accept this reconstruction (and the same holds for verbera), one should account for the change of the group –rb– to –rv– between Latin and French. Such a change occurred, but most rarely. The only credible example is verbena “sacred foliage,” whose Spanish and Portuguese reflex is verbena, but the French name of the plant is verveine; hence Engl. vervain. However, the idea that in Vulgar Latin rb tended to become rv is, in principle, acceptable. Franz Settegast (the scholar mentioned in the post on baron), who set up verbera as the etymon of verve and reconstructed the path from “blow” to “verve,” thought of some metaphor like the lashing of the tongue (his examples are French).

The most authoritative dictionaries of French offer only the verba-verve etymology. If it is correct, Ménage, as mentioned earlier, has been partly vindicated, for he may have pointed to the word that did ultimately yield verve. What then is the end result? It is true that an abstract noun cannot go back to an animal name without some suffixes added to it (sheepish, from sheep, is fine, but sheep for “shyness” is not), so that reference to goats probably misses its target. But the now almost universally accepted etymology does not look like a revelation either. Although verbera is a bit too long to have yielded verve, Settegast’s hypothesis does not look hopeless.

We may perhaps ignore the phonetic difficulty (rb to rv), but the semantic path from “words” to “verve” or, for that matter, from “blow” to “verve,” is not straight, even though “fantasies” provides an intermediate stage and castigate could imply both moral and physical punishment. Yet those who say that verve is “of unknown origin” need not do so. “Unknown” is a strong word. It suggests that no information on the subject is available. With regard to verve this is clearly wrong, and, since in this case English etymologists contributed nothing to the discovery of the truth, it would be fair to reproduce the verdict of the most reliable French dictionaries and add a caveat. Nor should it be recommended to repeat the derivation of verve from verba without a caveat. The main aim of a good etymological dictionary should be discussion rather than perpetuating dogma.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Since you link to your article on rogue, I’ll just mention that roger ‘message received’ is no mystery: it was used for the letter R in an American ancestor of the ICAO alphabet, and R has meant ‘message received’ since wired telegraphy days.

  2. Henno Brandsma

    A minor correction: the Dutch word is “werpen”, not “verpen”. Dutch also borrowed “verve” (enthousiasm) from French.

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