Perfect or incredible; causing amazement and reverence due to magnificence or high quality; exceeding ordinary experience or thrilling
Heightened, formalized, or magnified in style or quality; meant to express noble or heavenly ideas or realities
Worthy of reverence and appreciation; possessing extreme probity or excellence
Extreme or absolute
(Chemistry) To change from a solid state directly to a gas, without becoming liquid in the process; also to make such a change happen
(Antiquated) To elevate in status or esteem; to make something superior or more admirable
Lexicographers appreciate all words, but there are a few that really get our pages turning. The nuances of their definitions, the wide scope of their applications, the subtle ways their meanings can change with just the slightest shift of context or inflection - when these traits combine, they make for a linguistic experience that we find simply sublime. In fact, sublime is a perfect example of one of these scintillating terms. Sublime's versatility allows it to color any phrase and gives speakers a flexible tool to use in conversation. It's truly a sublime choice for any lover of words!
Why does sublime make us more excited than Gertrude Stein with a sentence to be diagrammed? Let's start with its multitude of uses as an adjective. In everyday speech and writing, you're most likely to encounter sublime being used to characterize something as incredible or extremely beautiful or enjoyable. When used in this sense, sublime implies that something is utterly extraordinary, stopping your breath for a bit and providing a deep, inspiring experience. A sublime poem would seem transcendental in its power and lyric grace; a sublime bowl of ice cream would have absolutely hit the spot, transporting you to a higher plane of sweet dairy existence on a hot summer evening. This application often hints at a notion of goodness or purity, suggesting that whatever's being described is wonderful because it's the very best it can be.
The idea of purity or transcendence is actually a recurring theme in the various meanings of sublime. A slightly different usage describes something as deserving of love, respect, or devotion because it is extremely wholesome or awesome, perhaps even to the point of divinity. This usage is a little more abstract - you might talk about sublime truths that are beyond the scope of mortal comprehension, or of a sublime deity that's stunning in its power and perfection. Here, the word hints at an ideal, making it a good choice to define something that is seen to be so flawless as to verge on impossibility. Interestingly, this usage implies that whatever is to be loved or respected innately possesses perfection or goodness, rather than having it arbitrarily ascribed by us humans based on our preconceived values. A sublime subject here doesn't need us to exalt it - it's already far above us.
Sometimes, though, the use of sublime can reveal our own, very human aspirations to grandeur and glory. In these cases, the word characterizes something tangible as purposefully made lofty, formal, or grandiose in style or quality. Something sublime in this sense is a human attempt to reach an elevated level of experience, an effort to convey some kind of grand, philosophical meaning or to imitate an ideal. Sublime speech, for instance, could be full of lofty language and abstract questions about the nature of reality - a far cry from a casual conversation you have with a friend about sports or the weather. Likewise, a sublime ritual would be conducted to serve a higher purpose; like a Catholic Communion or the coronation of a monarch, it would attempt to reflect fundamental truths and the noblest morals.
Sublime can also describe something as complete or existing to an extreme degree. This meaning shows things as being the utmost they could possibly be, and it is often used in conjunction with figurative or unphysical qualities. For instance, you could have a sublime disinclination for math if just the sight of a fraction makes you curl up in the fetal position.
But while all those adjectival applications would themselves be enough to transport a lexicographer to his happy place, sublime also has an equally wonderful set of meanings as a verb. Of these, one of the most helpful is seen in the field of Chemistry. Remember learning about the states of matter in high school - solid, liquid, gas, and possibly plasma? Much like a liquid can freeze into a solid or a vapor can condense into a liquid, under the right conditions a solid substance can sublime directly into a gas. This is a particularly interesting process because the substance that's subliming doesn't have to pass through the intermediate stage of liquid as its form loosens. A classic example of this is dry ice, which helps stage crews everywhere by transforming from a block of cold solidity directly into a slightly noisome vapor. To sublime can also refer to making a material undergo this process. In some cases, sublime implies that, soon afterward, the reverse occurs, and the gas deposits directly back into a solid.
More figuratively, a somewhat old-fashioned verb meaning of sublime refers to the act of elevating something to a more venerable, refined, or wholesome state. This use suggests that a person or object that was once either average or inferior in some way has been transformed into something of higher worth. Essentially, to sublime something in this way is to make it more acceptable; it is to take something low and raise it up to a greater level of value or worthiness.
Finally, if you're not convinced yet that sublime is, well, sublime, here's one more cool usage: frequently, you'll hear the word functioning as a noun in the phrase the sublime. We use verbs and adjectives as nouns in everyday language all the time, but the sublime is most common in formal speech and writing like sermons and poems. Most speakers mean something specific to the context when they use the sublime, but, in general, the phrase refers to the abstract quality of excellence, especially in terms of morality or intellectual value. To word-hounds, then, the many aspects of the word sublime represent the sublime of lexicography.
Example: For an adrenaline junkie like Rob, a day riding roller coasters was simply sublime.
Example: Maria stood enraptured by the sublime majesty of the ancient redwood forest.
Example: Curled up in bed, I felt a sense of sublime comfort.
Example: To some, the beauty found in man-made works of art is more sublime than the teachings of any religion.
Example: If I could only find some way to sublime the snow in my driveway, I'd never have to shovel again.
Example: You can try to sublime them any way you want, but I'm afraid I'll never see their worth.
Example: Meditating six hours a day, the monk hoped to clear his mind and access the sublime.
Today, sublime is often understood to mean "elevated" or "transcendental;" it's fitting, then, that the word's earliest ancestor possibly relates to the literal act of "slanting upward." That ancestor, the Latin sublimis, is thought to be a fusion of sub, meaning "upward to," and limen, meaning "lintel" (a lintel is the horizontal structure that spans the top of a doorway or of two posts - think of looking up at or beyond the top of a door). Regardless of that theory's accuracy, though, usage of sublimis would eventually expand to include additional figurative and literal meanings, such as "lifted above," "distinguished or venerable," and "of high worth." Sublime was first recorded in English in the late 16th century with the meaning "intellectually noble or elevated." The phrase the sublime arose during the 1670s.
Sublimes: This simple present form of sublime is used when a singular, third-person subject elevates the status or worth of something or converts a solid directly into a gas.
Example: The chemistry teacher sublimes a block of dry ice for his class at the beginning of every year.
Example: The chemistry teacher sublimes his science, calling it the meaning of life; his students have varying opinions on the matter.
Sublimed: Sublimed is the preterit of sublime, mostly used when something has been purified or enhanced, as well as when a solid substance has been converted into a gas in the past.
Example: John believes that his soul was sublimed as a result of his baptism.
Example: After seeing the dry ice sublimed, the students began to notice its rather foul smell.
Subliming: This present progressive form of sublime is used when someone is currently raising something's esteem or value. It can also be used when a substance is changing from a solid directly to a gas.
Example: By using experiments to inspire students, the chemistry teacher felt he was subliming his otherwise mundane career.
Example: Caren had to admit that watching the metal subliming was pretty cool.
Sublimate: Often used in psychology, to sublimate is essentially to take something base or undesirable, like anger or lust, and sublime, or elevate, it to something that can be welcomed or accepted by society. Sublimate is conjugated as sublimates, sublimating, and sublimated.
Example: Sheena managed to sublimate her nervous energy into a career as a punk rocker.
Sublimation: This noun refers describes a socially acceptable expression of an undesirable or impractical urge or tendency.
Example: I admit it: my love of racing videogames is just a sublimation of my desire to drive a sports car at a ridiculous speed.
Sublimely: This adverb usually describes an action, adjective, or other adverb as transcendental, awe-inspiring, wonderful, or absolute.
Example: I gazed in wonder as the clown sublimely tied some of the most complex balloon animals I'd ever seen.
Example: Thankfully, we were able to convince Clara that quitting her job to become a traveling accordion-minstrel would be sublimely stupid.
Sublimity: This noun describes something that is illustrious or that engenders amazement or supreme appreciation. It can also refer to an instance of awe-inspiring gloriousness or the condition of being incredible, absolute, or worthy of veneration.
Example: The sublimity of the beautiful sculpture garden too much for him to handle, Sam broke down in embarrassingly loud tears.
Example: Our vacation in Bora Bora brought us one sublimity after another.
Example: I will always look back fondly on the sublimity that was my wedding day.
Reading about sublime might remind you of a different word - subliminal. Subliminal is an adjective which means "happening outside of conscious awareness." Sort of like hypnotism, something subliminal is absorbed and processed by your brain without you being aware of it. Perhaps you've heard of subliminal messages or subliminal advertising, the placement of subtle cues within media that supposedly make you desire a product without ever consciously thinking about it.
Subliminal and sublime are similar in spelling, but their modern usages don't share much in common. They do, however, share similar origins, as subliminal is also formed with the Latin limen ("lintel"). The presence of this root reveals that subliminal is meant to convey something that is below a threshold or barrier of consciousness.
From Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo:
For the happy man prayer is only a jumble of words, until the day when sorrow comes to explain to him the sublime language by means of which he speaks to God.
Here, Dumas uses sublime to describe the way in which one communicates with God as transcendental and fundamentally above the limits of ordinary, feeble language. According to Dumas, it is only after great tragedy or hardship that one can master this language and thus come to know God.
From Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason:
Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.
In this passage, Kant uses the sublime as a noun to refer to his version of absolute philosophical truth. According to Kant, this truth, which might be likened to the divine, is beyond the realm of human comprehension; however, it is so beautiful in nature that even trying to understand it holds a certain attraction.
Your favorite pastime is sublime
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of sublime. Did you use sublime in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.