What Does Wax Poetic Mean?

Wax poetic is a classic idiomatic phrase in that it’s difficult to make much sense of it at all just by looking at the individual words it contains. It clearly has something to do with poetry, but what on earth do beeswax—or any other kind of wax—and poetic language have to do with one another?! Let’s explore the definition of this confusing popular expression.

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What Does Wax Poetic Mean?

Put simply, to wax poetic is to speak about a topic in a poetic way. Typically, it means to talk about something in a verbose manner; in other, ahem, words… to be wordy! That makes sense, as poetry often discusses a topic at length, using flowery, descriptive language like metaphors and similes to make its point. If you wax poetic, you may be speaking exaggeratedly about your subject. The idiom is often used when someone is progressively going on and on about a topic, when their language is becoming increasingly more descriptive and long-winded.

Here are some example sentences using the expression wax poetic:

  • My dad always likes to wax poetic about the “good old days” before the internet and cell phones. 
  • Don’t get Jenny started about her vacation to Europe. She’ll wax poetic about the buildings, and people, and food for hours, and you’ll just be stuck there listening to her go on and on. 
  • I warned my date I was about to wax poetic and then told her that her hair was golden like the sun, her skin as smooth as the smoothest pebble, and her smile as beautiful and captivating as the most intricate painting. 
  • Whenever Kelly gets that twinkle in her eye, I can tell she’s about to wax poetic about something or another!

As you’ll read more about below, in this phrase, wax is a verb. Thus, you can change its tense to suit your needs. For instance, you could use the present participle waxing and say that someone is waxing poetic, or the singular simple present waxes and say that someone waxes poetic, or the past participle and say that someone waxed poetic. However, although you may be tempted to say wax poetically, that is not the correct usage of this expression.

The Etymology and Origin of the Phrase

That’s right! Wax is an ancient verb meaning “to grow” or “to increase,” such as in size. Indeed, there’s evidence of the Old English form of the word, weaxan, in use in this way in the 9th century. Just as there’s documentation of wax being used to mean “to become bigger” dating back to medieval texts. But around the end of the Middle Ages, it appears to have been phased out of usage, or at least to have begun being phased out, in favor of the verb grow.

Once the verb was introduced into the lexicon, it began being used to describe the phases of the moon; while some sources suggest wax was first used to describe the moon in the 1300s, the Oxford English Dictionary points to its first usage in this way as 970. Because the verb meant “to grow,” it was said a moon waxes or is waxing when its surface becomes more lighted, visible, and larger in size, moving through the phases from new moon to full moon. Conversely, the moon wanes as its illuminated face becomes less visible and decreases in size, moving from full moon to new moon. We still use the verb wax in this way today. 

Of course, we also still use the verb wax in some ways to mean “to increase” in the idiom wax poetic, though it’s mostly thought of as meaning “to become” in this saying. While it technically went out of style in verb form some time around the 15th century in favor of grow, wax began to be used in phrases to describe growing more expansive and more verbose in one’s language and expression in the 1800s. These common phrases included wax lyrical, wax eloquent, and, you guessed it, wax poetic. You may also often hear the phrase wax philosophical.

It seems wax eloquent was the first to gain popularity, around 1824. The first written documentation of wax poetic appears to be in How I Found Livingstone by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, published around 1872. In it, he writes:

“One could almost wax poetic, but we will keep such ambitious ideas for a
future day.”

Of all the expressions, wax poetic remains most widely in use now. Again, as it became popular, the verb wax was redefined in light of the saying to mean “to assume a characteristic or state” or “to become.”

What Are Idioms?

As alluded to earlier in the article, an idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Idioms have figurative rather than literal meanings. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Since wax as a verb has only remained in widespread use in this idiom, and in reference to the phases of the moon, if you were to try and understand the expression just by looking at the words it contains, you’d probably land on the noun definition of wax, which could be describing anything from beeswax used to make candles, to hot wax used to remove hair and in skincare, to a waxy paste used to style hair, to wax used to polish cars, and even to earwax—none of which make any sense when paired with the word poetic. Like most idioms, you really must simply know the figurative definition of the phrase in order to understand its intended meaning and then use the saying correctly when speaking and writing. In this case, knowing the meaning of wax as “to grow” would help you arrive at the figurative meaning: to become increasingly more lyrical and, yep, poetic in one’s language.

Find many more examples of common idioms here.

Summary

To wax poetic is to speak in a lyrical, poetic manner: to use much flowery language to describe your subject or topic. Often it is used when someone becomes increasingly verbose; as they become more excited about the topic, their language becomes more poetic and perhaps they talk more at length and go on and on in this manner—they may also start to exaggerate in regards to the subject. Although you can say or write the variations waxes poetic, waxed poetic, and waxing poetic, it is not correct to use wax poetically. The expression stems from the early use of the verb wax to mean “to grow,” which is still also used when describing the waxing and waning of the moon.

PS: Speaking of poems, want to know how to write an ode? Find out here!