enthusiasm, enthuse

The meanings of words change over time. Sometimes words become more specialized; the Old English deor was used to refer to any kind of wild beast, but by the end of the thirteenth century had started to be used specifically to refer to the creature we now call a deer. Other words become more general; one such is enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm comes into English from Greek, where it refers to the state of being possessed by a god. It was a religious term for a state of divine ecstasy or frenzy. A poet, for instance, might be filled with enthusiasm by his muse. The Latin and Greek meaning was the sense of the word when it was first used in English.

Edmund Spenser uses the Greek word in his 1579 Shepheardes Calendar for the month of October, saying that poetry is:

a diuine gift and heauenly instinct not to bee gotten by laboure and learning, but adorned with both: and poured into the witte by a certaine ἐνθουσιασμός and celestiall inspiration

Within a few decades, the word had been anglicized. Philemon Holland, in his 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Morals, writes:

The Dæmons use to make their prophets and prophetesses to be ravished with an Enthusiasme or divine fury.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, enthusiasm had become generalized and was not always used in a religious sense or in reference to poetry. Now it could mean any passion or intense feeling toward someone or something, which is how it’s most commonly used today. So White Kennett could, in 1716, write a letter containing:

The King of Sweden [...] must have much more enthusiasm in him to put it in execution.

But the shifts in meaning were not finished. By the beginning of the twentieth century, an enthusiasm could also be a temporary fad or craze or a hedonistic indulgence, and James Joyce could write in his 1916 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man about Stephen Dedalus’s youthful revels and carousing:

The letters cut in the stained wood of the desk stared upon him, mocking his bodily weakness and futile enthusiasms and make him loathe himself for his own mad and filthy orgies.

But enthusiasm has given us yet another linguistic shift; it has been formed into the verb to enthuse. The verb is much derided. Style maven Bryan Garner says it “is a widely criticized back-formation avoided by writers and speakers who care about the language. Even the OED, in an entry written in 1891, calls it “an ignorant back-formation.” But the verb is older than many may think.

It’s first recorded in 1827, in a letter by botanist David Douglas:

My humble exertions will I trust convey and enthuse, and draw attention to the beautifully varied verdure of N.W. America.

Douglas was a Scotsman who traveled and spent many years in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Enthuse is distinctly North American, and it tends to be used in more informal registers. Use of the verb is becoming more common, and it is inching its way into more formal contexts. So despite the best efforts of language purists, it has been making steady progress over the last two centuries.

That’s quite a journey in a mere four centuries, from religious ecstasy to boozing it up and sowing one’s wild oats, with detours into fads and gushing praise.

Garner, Bryan A.; Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition; s.v. enthuse, vb.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition; s.v. enthusiasm, n., enthuse, v.; 1989.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; s.v. enthuse; Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994.

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