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shameless pleading

Vim / vigor / vitality

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah

Dear Word Detective: The GF and I were wondering how attached vim/vigor/vitality are. I argued that vitality is third wheel. She is livid. — Tyler Richart.

Well, here we go. If this question seems a bit terse, a tad telegraphic, like something that you might blurt as the elevator door is closing, there’s a reason. It’s the very first question that I’ve received over Twitter (@word_detective, of course). Twitter has a well-known requirement that all “Tweets” be exactly 140 characters long and include nine non-alphanumeric characters and one cat picture. Tweets thus rely heavily on abbreviations; “GF” in this case apparently stands for George Foreman, the electric griddle guy. Or maybe “Grande Fromage,” meaning “the Big Cheese.” That’s what’s great about Twitter: it’s so ephemeral that no one cares what any of it means. Oh look, there’s a rabbit wearing a top hat.

Onward. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that by “attached” our Tweeter means how “related” the words “vim,” “vigor” and “vitality” are, and the answer is “not much,” although they all come ultimately from Latin.

Of the three words, “vigor” (which almost everyone not in the US spells “vigour”) is the oldest, first appearing in the early 14th century. English derived “vigor” from the Latin verb “vigere,” meaning “to be lively, alert, productive,” which in turn came from the same Indo-European roots that eventually gave use “wake” and “watch.” The meaning of “vigor” in English has developed and expanded over the centuries, but has never strayed far from the general sense of “strength, energy, power, effectiveness” (“Bob’s lawyer mounted a defense so full of vigor and passion that the jury voted to convict the District Attorney.”). The connotation of “vigor” is generally more positive than simply “strength,” carrying the sense of something functioning well or a person in radiant health, but it does have a darker side, as in laws enforced with a “vigor” and inflexibility sometimes synonymous with brutality.

“Vitality” dates to the late 16th century and comes ultimately from the Latin “vita,” meaning “life,” and its derivative “vitalis,” meaning “possessing life; consisting of or characteristic of life.” (Vitalis is also a hair tonic popular in the 1960s, inexplicably still available, and most famous for its TV commercials deriding its competitor Brylcreem as “Greasy kid stuff.”) Like “vigor,” “vitality” carries connotations of “strength,” “energy” and “animation,” but “vitality” also pertains to the future prospects of a thing or person; an elderly person evidencing great “vitality” with an active social life and cheerful outlook is probably going to be around for a while. The adjective “vital” originally meant simply “relating to or possessing life” or “necessary for life,” but took on the somewhat diluted modern meaning of “really important” in the 17th century.

“Vim” is a synonym of “vigor” and “vitality,” but much newer than either of them, first appearing in the mid-19th century. “Vim” appears to have developed from the Latin “vim,” which is a form of “vis,” meaning “strength or energy,” but it’s also possible that it was simply a fanciful coinage. Whatever the source, “vim” now plays alliterative second fiddle to “vigor” and is almost never seen outside the phrase “vim and vigor.”

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