Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

Deliquescent

Pronounced /dɛlɪˈkwɛsənt/Help with pronunciation

Many people first encountered this word, as I did, during a school science lesson in which some crystals were put on the bench. Within a few minutes, as the result of being hygroscopic, they absorbed enough water vapour from the air to dissolve into solution. Such crystals are said to deliquesce or to be deliquescent.

That’s a specific technical application of a word whose meanings in English are intriguing. For example, how about dusty and deliquescent? In the nineteenth century, deliquescent was used jokingly of someone who has become so hot as a result of physical exertion that he’s swimming in sweat. Dusty and deliquescent became what we may politely call a set phrase or, impolitely, a cliché:

The country pedestrians, “dusty and deliquescent” with their long rounds, are seen marching back towards the city.

The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857.

The Latin original is deliquescere. This could mean “dissolve”, but more negatively it implied melting away or exhausting. Romans might employ it figuratively for dissipating one’s energies. This produced another English meaning — of organic matter such as fungi that decomposes into a liquid mass after fruiting. Such ideas gave this author a way to create an image of fading fruitfulness:

There was a middle-aged woman at the far side of the room with black dyed hair and a sort of deliquescent distinction.

Room at the Top, by John Braine, 1957.

The word can — surprisingly — describe a plant stem that repeatedly branches. The concept is of a single stem that ramifies by repeated branchings into ever smaller stems until it fades to nothing. This deeply figurative example is presumably borrowing the idea:

This past fall, with the consecutive openings of six “Asian biennials,” the deliquescent 1990s and early-2000s trend toward establishing new large-scale exhibitions in increasingly far-flung locales bore fruit, such as it is.

Artforum, 1 Jan. 2009

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Dec. 2009

Advice on copyright

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/weirdwords/ww-del1.htm
Last modified: 5 December 2009.