The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s wax philosophical.

Q: My wife and I were taking our usual evening stroll when she admonished me not to “wax philosophical.” That led to a discussion about the origin of the expression. We couldn’t come up with an answer, so we thought of you. Will you please enlighten us about this phrase and others that start with “wax”?

A: I’m most familiar with “wax eloquent,” which I always thought would be a terrific name for a floor polish.

Seriously, the word “wax” is ancient, with Indo-European roots going back to prehistory. The earliest published reference in English dates from around 897 (it was spelled “weaxan” in those days), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Anglo-Saxon days, the verb “wax” (with its archaic spellings) was often used to mean grow or increase. That usage is much less frequent these days and has a literary flavor. You might say it has waxed and waned.

I believe the most common combinations today are “wax eloquent,” “wax philosophical,” and “wax sentimental.” But if you’re waxing nowadays, it probably involves a car, a floor, a table, or your legs.