Pining

Boil his bunny!

Dear WD: I mentioned the words “pining away” to a co-worker today and she didn’t have a clue what I meant. In answer, I responded, e.g., having lost interest in life after a spouse had passed away. Are you aware of its origin? — Maureen Wallace.

Aware of its origin? I should say so. I’ll have you know that I possess an advanced degree in pining, which I earned many years ago at the prestigious Madame Butterfly Institute of Debilitating Obsession in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Incidentally, although “pining” can be applied to the sort of prolonged grief you used in your example, the word is more often used to describe a severe and persistent romantic obsession, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To be consumed with longing; to languish with intense desire, to hunger after something; to long eagerly.”

Now, the first question we “pinists” usually hear is “What has all this to do with pine trees? You must be a real plant lover, hahaha.” Well, you can stop snickering now — there is, I assure you, no connection between the two words.

“Pine,” the tree, comes from the Latin “pinus,” which is related to an earlier Indo-European word meaning “resin” or “sap,” which pine trees possess in abundance. “Pine,” the act of mooning about in the wake of lost love, comes from the Latin “poena,” meaning “punishment,” which also gave us “pain” and “penalty.”

Unfortunately, it seems that “pining,” a staple of 19th century fiction, has gone entirely out of fashion these days. Today’s washed-up paramours more often take to the streets seeking revenge, often with dire consequences. In the film Fatal Attraction, for instance, Glenn Close could have stayed home and pined over Michael Douglas to the tune of Madame Butterfly (my childhood favorite and, I assure you, prime pining music) and had everyone’s sympathy, rather than taking it out on an innocent rabbit. As it turned out, however, she invented a handy metaphor (“boil his bunny”), but set dating back a good fifty years.

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