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Sublime

Pronounced /səˈblaɪm/Help with pronunciation

Let me try to be objective about this. Britain had a cold snap this week, lasting 24 hours or so. Temperatures dropped sharply to rather below freezing point, some snow fell, and a few roads in southern Britain were closed because of drifts. The media went into overdrive, as it does at the least sign of wintry weather. Terms like blizzard and Siberian conditions were dusted off and horror stories were retailed of the way in which several people were badly inconvenienced.

A prime offender here was the Guardian, which dedicated half a page to a coloured graphic showing how the east wind did blow and how we did have snow. One sentence on the formation of snowflakes particularly caught my eye: “This condensation does not reach a liquid state: it goes directly from water vapour to ice, known as sublimation”. My old chemistry master would not have agreed with that, nor do any of my dictionaries.

Our words sublime and sublimation are based on the Latin word sublimis, a compound of sub- “under; up to” and limin “threshold”, so etymologically having the sense of “as high as the top of a door”. It could literally mean “lofty; raised up” but also had a figurative sense in Latin of “exalted; eminent, aspiring”.

It turns up first in English as a verb in medieval alchemy. Something that had sublimed had been converted by heat from a solid directly into a vapour, considered to be an ethereal or higher form of nature. As it happens, a number of substances important to alchemy sublime, including sulphur, white arsenic, amber and camphor; the device in which this was done was a sublimatory. Of course, such substances condensed again to solids when they cooled, and the word was commonly applied to the whole process of heating, vaporisation and resolidification, but the change from solid to gas was always primary.

Much later sublime began to be used as an adjective (it appears first in almost the earliest English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604) with the same figurative sense of its Latin original, of being set or raised aloft or being at the highest point, as in Cowper’s poem “Travel Nature up to the sharp peak of her sublimest height”. Even a lofty building would be called sublime because it ascended to the heights in a figurative sense rather than a physical one, as could aspects of nature, which were sublime if they had grandeur or inspired awe or spiritual emotion. It was equally and quickly applied to ideas, with the sense of being elevated to the “highest regions of thought or human reality” to quote the OED, or to writing that expressed lofty ideas in a grand and elevated manner. Equally, someone who had sublime qualities was supreme or even perfect.

At the beginning of this century sublimation was borrowed by the students of Freud to mean the diversion of some primitive impulse, such as sex, into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity. This generated a new verb, to sublimate, which is only used of this transition, not of the change of state in chemistry (though the noun has for long been used in this sense, as corrosive sublimate of mercuric chloride). Slightly earlier, the same Latin elements were borrowed again with a different slant to create subliminal, something that is below the threshold of consciousness.

Whatever you may say about the reaction of the British press to the arrival of snow, it’s hardly subliminal and scarcely sublime, but it has provoked some seasonal musings.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Dec. 1997
Last updated: 21 Mar. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-sub2.htm
Last modified: 21 March 1998.