Let us luxuriate in a long trail (and oh, alliteration, how we love and longingly linger over you). A comment last month about the posting “A Day Made of Diamonds” led me to the gracious commenter’s “frame of nature.” That blog’s “About” page does all its abouting in two quotations, one of which is by Joseph Addison:
Should the whole frame of nature round him break,
In ruin and confusion hurled,
He, unconcerned, would hear the mighty crack,
And stand secure amidst a falling world.
Not familiar with those lines, I did a search and found that they are a much expanded translation of words from an ode by the Roman poet Horace. (Roman poetry didn’t rhyme, nor did Old English poetry, but most modern English poetry through the middle of the 20th century did.) Here are Horace’s compact Latin words: “Si fractus illabatur orbis, / impavidum ferient ruinae.” There I recognized impavidum as the source of Spanish impávido, which means ‘fearless.’
As an example of usage, take this sentence from Resúmen de la Historia de Venezuela, published in Paris in 1841 and copied here with the accentuation of that era: “Fiero estrago y heroica resistencia halló el enemigo en las calles próximas á la trinchera, y en esta un fuego horrible dirigido por el Libertador y el impávido Lino Clemente.” (In the streets close to the military trench the enemy found heroic resistance and ruination fiercely inflicted by the Liberator and the fearless Lino Clemente.”)
After studying several foreign languages that have a lot in common with my own, as Spanish has with English, I’m sometimes not sure whether my own language uses a version of this or that word that occurs in one of the other languages. It seemed to me that English has the adjective impavid, but obviously not as a day-to-day word. Sure enough, the Century Dictionary, that wonder from a century ago, included impavid, which it marked as rare and defined as ‘fearless; undaunted; intrepid.’ It even obligingly pointed out that Spanish and Portuguese have impávido; it also referred its readers, of whom I was now one, to the non-negative English pavid, which I found likewise marked as rare and defined as ‘timid.’
Wordnik, which defines pavid as ‘exhibiting or experiencing fear; timid,’ offers several quotations containing the word; the most overwrought, and therefore the most fun to read, is from Thackeray’s Novels by Eminent Hands:
“The pavid matron within the one vehicle (speeding to the Bank for her semestrial pittance) shrieked and trembled; the angry Dives hastening to his office (to add another thousand to his heap,) thrust his head over the blazoned panels, and displayed an eloquence of objurgation which his very Menials could not equal; the dauntless street urchins, as they gayly threaded the Labyrinth of Life, enjoyed the perplexities and quarrels of the scene, and exacerbated the already furious combatants by their poignant infantile satire.”
As the Century Dictionary had done with impavid, it helpfully pointed out that English pavid has the Spanish and Portuguese cognate pávido, which the Diccionario de la lengua española confirms is “usado más en lenguaje poético.” In a separate entry, this dictionary defines Spanish pavor, from the identical Latin noun, as ‘temor, con espanto o sobresalto.’ Some English medical dictionaries fearlessly include the Latin phrase pavor nocturnis, which they translate as ‘night terror’ or ‘night-terrors.’
And suddenly it occurs to me that a slip of the tongue can turn the would-be grateful por favor into por pavor, an acknowledg[e]ment of something done out of fear.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman