Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Idyl, Idyll, and the Ideal

I received this note from Rebecca Casper today:

“The word that came up in the debate tonight was idyll or idyl. Some believe it is related to ideal. Others said, “No.” In any event, its full meaning is not altogether clear from a simple dictionary. Have you ever featured this word so that you could share your research? It is of Greek derivation, but I thought it was also an allusion to some Greek myth or legend. (But I can’t find anything.) Tennyson wrote ‘Idylls of the King,’ but that doesn’t give us a good etymology. Can you?”

First of all, how do we spell this word: Idyll or idyl? The US dictionaries don’t seem to care how many Ls we use but idyll is the original spelling. Idyl is a later misspelling that has become acceptable.

This word is unrelated to ideal though the latter may have informed the meaning of the former. Ideal is the adjective for idea under the assumption that the idea of an object is always a perfect representation of that object.

Idyll comes, via Latin idyllium, from eidyllion, a diminutive of Greek eidos “form, that which is seen, a person’s beauty”, from the verb meaning “to see”, the one that also went into the making of English video. The diminutive of this word came to refer to a type of short idealized poem, usually a bucolic one, which is to say, a romantic poem about the countryside.

An idyll today still retains a bucolic aroma but today it means “a simple, tranquil state of affairs”. It can also refer to a peaceful interlude that is absolutely perfect, a vacation or affair in a place we normally only dream about.

Look for this word as a Good Word toward the end of October.

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