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What does "Wax Poetic" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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To wax poetic means to use flowery or expressive language to describe a relatively mundane topic, or using heightened, formal language to communicate a simple thought. A cook might wax poetic about his latest dessert; "overflowing with the rich chocolate lava poured from the volcano of love itself." A car owner might wax poetic about the angelic hum of a perfectly tuned engine. Some people could also be said to wax philosophical about their newest hobbies, or wax lyrical about their latest successes. Of all these expressions, however, waxing poetical appears to have survived the longest in modern usage.

The word wax in the expression does not refer to any waxy substance, like candle wax or car wax. Instead, it is an archaic word meaning "to grow." Some people still refer to the "waxing and waning" of the moon, for example. A waxing moon is growing in apparent size from a sliver to a half-moon and finally to a full moon. A waning moon goes through the opposite phase, reducing in apparent size from full to "new," or completely dark. It was also common in ancient times to refer to a person increasing or waxing in character or in physical size. Early English literature does contain references to the word weaxen, an Old English form of "waxing".

The use of expressions such as waxing lyrical or waxing strong can be traced back many centuries, but the first use of wax poetic is thought to be in a book written by the famous English doctor Stanley Livingstone in 1872. Livingstone was referring to the temptation to wax poetic about his experiences as a world traveler and physician. By waxing poetical about his personal experiences, he could be seen as romanticizing the past or using unnecessarily florid language for the sake of art alone.

Essentially, whenever a person waxes poetic on a topic he or she is passionate about, there is always a temptation to exaggerate or glorify the subject at hand. Sometimes this heightened and expressive language is effective. Indeed, many successful advertising campaigns are based on the concept of waxing poetic about a new food product or exotic vacation destination or seductive new fragrance. When done effectively, waxing poetic about an experience or product can help the audience envision it in their own minds. To wax poetic would mean to grow or expand one's language from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the expected to the unexpected.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon348948 — On Sep 22, 2013

After all this explanation of what "lyrical" means, and clear-cut examples for illustration, almost everyone posting here still has no clue as to what wax poetic means.

By micheller23 — On Jun 04, 2011

@mount4ingirl- Your point about the grunge movement "waning poetic" rather than waxing was very interesting. Although waxing poetic has been common all throughout the written word, and most other forms of media, I do believe that in the past couple decades we have been nosediving towards a complete lack of poetry.

The concept of something being sacred, beautiful, or romantic has flown out the window to much of modern U.S. society, causing recent generations to be thrown into a world of apathy and distaste. It's difficult to find any poetry or romance amongst so much apathy.

By mount4ingirl — On Jun 04, 2011

@SkyWhisperer – I believe you’re correct in your assumption that “times have changed.” Indeed, the times have changed. Many of our most poetic musical tunes came from before the late 1980s, when romanticism still seems to have had its grip on the American public – from Elvis to Journey and back again. However, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of the “grunge” movement, with bands like Nirvana emphasizing a more direct, perhaps event strictly blunt, method of saying what they wanted rather than waxing poetic.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jun 04, 2011

@MrMoody - I don’t often wax poetic about many things, but I think that as with all literary devices, this should be used in moderation. Too much of syrup is not a good thing—or to paraphrase Mary Poppins, just a teaspoon of sugar is all you need.

In music, I understand its use, but in modern parlance, let’s just say times have changed and people prefer more direct styles of speech rather than an overabundance of descriptive goop.

That’s the reason I’m a Hemingway fan. Simple statements like “it rained” were good enough for him; they’re good enough for me, too.

By MrMoody — On Jun 04, 2011

@everetra - Some lyrics do stay with you forever, because of their poetic style, their ability to capture romantic themes and use literary devices to speak to these themes in a way that has appeal to the mass market. My preferences are the Jim Croce melodies, with songs like “If I could put time in a bottle…” and of course the unforgettable “Bad, bad, Leroy Brown…”

These lyrics become part of the American fabric, our iconic culture. It is part of what gives these old songs constant replay on golden oldies radio stations.

By everetra — On Jun 04, 2011

No wax poetic definition would be complete without a discussion of music. Musicians can be very poetic in their lyrics. I suppose that was the basis for creating a publication about the music industry entitled Wax Poetics magazine.

The publication covers a range of musical styles from jazz to hip-hop, Reggae and other soulful styles of music. I suppose these genres are the most lyrical and hence the name of the publication.

By Charred — On Jun 04, 2011

I think one of the most egregious liberties that creative artists take has to be poetic license. You see this most often in Hollywood films that are based on books. Often you read the book, and then go see the movie, and immediately you notice that the movie is not like the book. Filmmakers claim the freedom to depart from the printed page and remake the story to their own liking.

Frequently they will cite that some aspects of the printed page don’t translate well to screen, and in that sense I agree. Filmmaking is all about visuals, whereas storytelling is about text. Sometimes you have to be creative in your retelling.

However, it’s still not uncommon to hear writers complain about how their beloved works have been wrested to create something almost totally alien to the original author’s intention. That’s the nature of the business I suppose.

By Markus — On Jun 04, 2011

The most famous waxing poetic lyrics I can think of are the glorified Oscar Mayer bologna and wiener jingles. We've all heard them as a child and most of us ran to the television so we could sing along.

The whimsical tune that over-exaggerates a plain slice of bologna has been so successful in advertising that it generally sticks with us throughout our entire adult lives. "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener..." Remember the rest of it?

Oh, and who can forget those California Raisins commercials when they would sing "Heard it Through the Grapevine?" Yes those wonderful waxing poetic charms in advertisements of yesterday seem to be a thing of the past.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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