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shameless pleading

Vim and Vigor

But is taken, so don’t bother.

Dear Word Detective: Why does “vim” only exist with “vigor”? Can we change that? — Joe.

Well, you’re welcome to try. After all, language is a true democracy, a rare bird these days. Anyone can put a word or phrase to a vote simply by using it and convincing other folks to take it for a spin. That’s how, after all, we ended up with such creations as “ginormous” and the appending of “2.0” to all sorts of silly things (Web 2.0, Business 2.0, Clumping Cat Litter 2.0, et al.). So go for it — get out there and use “vim” by itself at every opportunity. I should warn you, however, that it’s much easier to launch a new usage than to sink an old one, so I wouldn’t waste time ranting against the “vim and vigor” pairing. Back in the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, master satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, did his best to abolish a long list of words he disliked, including “mob,” “sham,” “banter,” bully” and “bubble.” As usual, the “mob” wasn’t listening.

While it’s true that “vim” is today almost always encountered bolted to “vigor” in the cliche “vim and vigor,” that’s apparently a relatively recent development. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in fact, doesn’t contain a single print citation for “vim and vigor,” although a Google search, as of today, produces more than 55,000 results. Judging from what I’ve found poking around in a number of places, “vim and vigor” seems to have become truly popular only in the late 19th century. The secret of the success of “vim and vigor” as a cliche is, of course, its alliteration, the repetition of that initial “v.”

It would have been difficult for “vim and vigor” to have been a hit much earlier than the latter half of the 1800s, because the word “vim” itself didn’t appear until 1843 (the earliest citation found by the folks at the OED). There are two schools of thought about the origins of “vim,” which means “enthusiasm, energy, and liveliness.” The classier of the two theories traces it to the Latin “vim,” the accusative singular form of the noun “vis,” meaning “strength” or “energy.” The more plebeian theory suggests that “vim” is onomatopoeic in origin, i.e., “vim” just sounds like something being revved up. I tend to think that if “vim” had a Latin origin it would have showed up a bit earlier, but, in any case, the use of “vim” all by itself was common in the 19th century (“He fought well and with a vim that I have never seen equaled,” 1894).

One reason we were able to get along without “vim” until the mid-18th century is that we already had “vigor,” and the two words are considered synonyms by most dictionaries. “Vigor” does have more elaborated meanings (such as “in vigor” used in a legal context to mean “in force”), but the basic sense underlying all such specialized meanings of “vigor” is “physical, mental or moral strength, vitality and enthusiasm,” which is about as close to “vim” as you can get without stepping on its toes. “Vigor” had quite a head start on “vim,” however, first appearing in English around 1300, drawn, via Old French, from the Latin “vigere,” meaning “to be lively, to thrive.”

So, by all means, feel free to leave “vigor” at home and boldly use the naked “vim” in conversation. Just be prepared for the inevitable “What does that really mean, anyway?”

3 comments to Vim and Vigor

  • Bob George

    Beautifully stated and well written. Thank you.

  • Karl

    If we may continue this thread of thought, what nuance differences can you elaborate toward – vim versus verve?

  • Here’s probably the secret to why “vim” didn’t show up earlier despite its Latin origins.

    First of all, if you were trying to inflect the noun as it would appear in a Latin phrase as the object of “full of,” you would get the ablative case “vi” as opposed to the accusative “vim.” But nobody ever said “full of vi and vigor.” Instead, when a Latin word is used in an English sentence, it is standard practice to use the nominative case.

    If you Google the expression using the nominative case, “vis and vigor,” you get a fairly respectable number of results, most of which are from the 19th century or thereabouts. So what happened during the course of the 19th century to change “vis and vigor” to “vim and vigor”?

    Here’s where it gets interesting. Say the older form aloud and you will suddenly realize that a corruption of that phrase was probably the origin of the saying “full of piss and vinegar,” which is not attested in writing prior to the 20th century. It’s highly likely that the more educated people of the 19th century were appalled by the corrupted version of the phrase they were hearing from the unlettered masses, and tacitly agreed to use the accusative “vim” instead to avoid any misunderstandings.

    Brand new theory AFAIK, but seems pretty convincing.

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