Here’s an old word that feels new and apt at the end of this sad, stalled year.
Respair has just a single citation in the OED, which calls it “obsolete” and “rare.” The word appears to have been coined by Andrew of Wyntoun, a Scottish poet and chronicler who lived between c. 1350 and c. 1423. It’s coined from Latin roots meaning “again” and “hope.”
You’d think that such an interesting and useful word would have a long and vigorous life in the language. But instead respair languished—at least until March 2017, when Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s language column as “Johnson,” included it in an essay about “why words die”:
The OED has “respair”, both as a noun and verb, meaning the return of hope after a period of despair—an obvious etymological kissing-cousin. But the great dictionary’s only citation for this dates back to 1425. For whatever reason, “respair” is a word that English-speakers decided they could happily live without.
Could happily live without until 2020, that is.
Haggard Hawks, the nom de social media of English writer Paul Anthony Jones, tweets interesting and obscure words and idioms every day. As one of his many fans put it, “If you like going down holes and getting lost in them while finding relationships between common and not so common words, this Twitter feed is for you.”
On May 14, respair was one of the words of the day.
RESPAIR is the little-known opposite of ‘despair’: a word for a renewed or reinvigorated hope, or a recovery from anguish or hopelessness. pic.twitter.com/Lr3MxGLurx— Haggard Hawks (@HaggardHawks) May 14, 2020
The word struck a chord: the tweet received some 1,500 likes and 952 retweets. And in a mid-December Word of the Year poll, respair beat out aporia, casus omissis, and wheady-mile. “Following an undeniably tough twelve months, it seems an impressive 30% of you wanted to look ahead a little more positively,” HH wrote. (You can read about all the words on the Haggard Hawks blog.)
RESPAIR— Haggard Hawks (@HaggardHawks) December 11, 2020
(n.) the opposite of despair—renewed hope, recovery from a period of anguish or hopelessness
Respair is light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re ending the year exhausted, but ready for a fresh start—and tentatively hopeful for 2021—then perhaps this is the one for you? pic.twitter.com/39ebbR4ZIO
The poet Craig van Rooyen had discovered respair, too: He made it the title of his poem about lost words published in October in the Cincinnati Review. Assistant editor Toni Judnitch wrote that van Rooyen’s poem “begs to be read aloud, and it presents us with something new, with words we might never have heard before—woolfell, slugabed, poltroon—words to sample, to taste, and the speaker’s desperation and wonder at language itself is infectious.”
Here are the final three lines of “Respair”:
And if I could, I’d turn myself inside out to resurrect
respair, that forgotten Emmaus Road word for
the return of hope after a long period of desolation.
I wrote about the history and etymology of Emmaus back in 2014 (scroll to the end).