Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incandescently: More Frequently

At the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice—in which he turns Jane Austen into Charlotte Brontë but nobody seems to mind—Lizzie tells her newly-wedded Darcy that he should call her “Mrs. Darcy” only when he is “completely and perfectly and incandescently happy”. Incandescently.

The word doesn’t appear in Austen’s text. This is easy to imagine, since incandescent only took on a secondary meaning of passionate or intense in the second half of the nineteenth century (according to the OED). Of course, the whole implicitly post-coital scene is absent from Austen’s novel. Not even the Brontës would stoop to such coarseness, never mind Our Jane!

Deborah Moggach, who wrote the screenplay, made a decent choice of words here.* Beneath its posh and old-fashioned sound, incandescently hints at the passion that hangs over so much of Wright’s physicalized retelling of the novel.

Still, incandescently is a weird word. And it seems to be cropping up in more and more places. In Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key, published two years before Wright’s adaptation, a character’s face is “beautiful, incandescent with joy and excitement.” De Rosnay is French but of English and Russian descent. Is it possible that incandescent is more commonly used in French? Or Russian? Somehow, I don’t think so (but I would like to know if any native French or Russian speakers feel differently).

Then recently, on the popular blog Jezebel, a critique of Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article on infidelity finds that “Flanagan has some incandescently insulting things to say about [Rielle] Hunter.” I am happy to stay out of the argument over John Edwards, his sex life, and Helen Gurley Brown (yes, Flanagan weaves it all together). But I can’t help noticing that word again. It’s used just the way it was used in the second issue of the Edinburgh Review, in 1803: “More incandescently wrongheaded than any body else.” Maybe the Edinburgh Review editor was chastising some Scottish politician’s mistress?

What is it about incandescent that is making people (admittedly, only three people in four years) want to use it? Is it its length—the four syllables seeming to draw out and emphasize the passion or fury the word is intended to signify? Is it all those vowels? Or is it just me?

*Emma Thompson is listed as an uncredited writer of some of the dialogue. Perhaps we owe incandescent to her? And if so, are we inclined to like the choice better—because she can do no wrong?


  1. I like incandescent but not incandescently ...

  2. I feel incandescently is just too much - a bit loose and floppy if you can apply it to anything .. moving towards a blurred sense of being extremely happy as opposed to the idea of being lit up inside with happiness .... ?

  3. Well, I may come across as a philistine here when I remark that I just like the way the word sounds coming out of Ms. Knightley's mouth.