Tuesday, February 3, 2009


sublime [sə-blīm']
adj. 1. elevated or lofty in thought, language, etc.; 2. impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.; 3. supreme or outstanding.

[Latin sub (up to) + limen (threshold)]

The etymology of sublime suggests the word might have originated pharmacologically -- the sublime being up to the threshold at which a drug or a drink brings on a feeling of awe. It could also be the point at which a natural high takes hold.

A different word, subliminal ("existing or operating below the threshold of consciousness") has the exact same Latin roots. However, the prefix sub takes on a different spin, "beneath" as opposed to "up to."

My introduction to sublime came studying the Ottoman Empire in college. The sultan's government in Istanbul was commonly referred to by foreign diplomats as "the Sublime Porte." That name (translated from Turkish) came from the grand (sublime) gate (porte) at the entrance to the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Grand Vizier (prime minister) held court and met foreign diplomats.

A hundred years ago and more, every major government had its own metonym ("nickname"). Whitehall, for example, is the street in London where many ministries of the British government are located. Therefore, Whitehall is used interchangeably with the government of the United Kingdom, particularly its civil service. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located on the Quai d'Orsay (a pier on the Seine); thus, Quai d'Orsay is the nickname by which the French foreign ministry is known. Wilhelmstrasse is the metonym applied to the German Foreign Office, because that is the street in Berlin where Germany's Reich Chancellery and Foreign Office are located. Foggy Bottom is a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and thus is the nickname for the U.S. State Department.

An adage of Napoleon Bonaparte, said following his retreat from Moscow in 1812 was, "there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous." ("Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas.") The idea is, you go one step too far, and what was a brilliant adventure becomes a humiliating defeat. Crass as it sounds, I think of this adage when I see women with artificially enhanced chests. Done just right, they look sublime. But a bit too much silicone stuffed into there and it's completely ridiculous.

In pop music, there was a popular Southern California band called, "Sublime." While I don't think their music ever "impressed with a sense of grandeur or power," they were good at what they did. Sublime was often referred to as a Ska Punk band, I think because the boys in the group looked like punks. However, their music had none of the power, speed or anger of punk rock. It had sort of a latter day Jimmy Buffet-esque beach-feel to it that a lot of the early 1990s Ska revival bands had, attracting an audience familiar with cannabis.

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