October 1, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Can the adjective "agape" be used only to modify "mouth" or can it be used to modify other things? Like ... "The jewelry box was now agape." That's maybe not the best example as perhaps you could think of a jewelry box as having a mouth. I'm aware that it's almost unheard of in common usage for anything but a mouth to be agape, but would it be incorrect to use this adjective on something else?
posted by january to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think this would fall closer to poetic license, useful only in unusual jewelry box situations, than to hardline incorrectness.
posted by jon1270 at 8:32 AM on October 1, 2012

The OED entry for "agape (adv. and adj.)" has a few non-mouth examples -- specifically, you might be interested in this line from Thomas Hood's Tale of Trumpet: "At a door ajar, or a window agape."
posted by theodolite at 8:33 AM on October 1, 2012

I just ran a search on "doors were agape" which popped into my head on reading your question, and there were 4300 results.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:33 AM on October 1, 2012

Sorta? "The jewelry box had also been hit; it lay tipped to one side, the empty drawers agape in the dim light."

My only issue is with "now agape" as agape is a still, and final position to me. "now" is a more active word unless you're in the middle of describing action.
posted by tilde at 8:34 AM on October 1, 2012

I have seen it written that the curtains were agape.
posted by empatterson at 8:37 AM on October 1, 2012

I agree with the posters above. It is fine to use the word 'agape' for more than just a mouth.

Considering the word first meant love, then love of God for mankind and wasn't used in the mouth connotation until the 17th century, expanding the 'wide open' meaning to other objects is perfectly fine.
posted by 2manyusernames at 8:39 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I vote it makes the most sense used with literal or figurative mouths. (Doors, drawers, windows, etc. can all be construed as mouths for figurative purposes.)
posted by smirkette at 8:39 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The history of the word gape is specifically mouth-related, having to do with an open mouthed stare. There is also gawp, which is similar. But the word has long since gained metaphorical traction for any wide or slack opening. Note that the prefix "a-" is a way to transform some verbs into adjectives in English. Some verbs can take either a- or -ing: alive / living, asleep / sleeping. Some have slight meaning shifts between the two forms: awake / waking. And of course some just only work one way: "awalk" is not common at all. I'd say that agape and gaping still have pretty much the same meaning, though gaping is more and more associated with wounds, so agape is a better choice if you want to avoid that connotation.
posted by Nothing at 8:43 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, pretty sure the prefix "a-" added to "gape" is a different word than "agape" from the greek for brotherly love.
posted by Nothing at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

Interesting, Nothing. I've always seen 'gawp' to be a more active motion - someone stands with their mouth agape, or are gawping at something (moving, tracking with eyes or head in disbelief, sometimes with small sounds).
posted by tilde at 8:52 AM on October 1, 2012

Well, they are definitely not the same word in modern usage - they just have similar origins.
posted by Nothing at 8:55 AM on October 1, 2012

"Agape" comes from the verb "gape", which itself was used for not-mouth things as long ago as 1400, and is likely even older.

Here's an example of "agape" itself used with something that isn't a mouth, from 1883:
At its edge is a sepulchre hollowed and hewn for a lone man's bed,
Propped open with rock and agape on the sky and the sea thereunder,
But roofed and walled in well from the wrath of them slept its dead.
posted by Jehan at 9:11 AM on October 1, 2012

If it makes any difference, the verb "aĆ° gapa"* in both modern Icelandic and old Norse means to gape, and it is also used for non-mouth things in modern Icelandic.
posted by Nothing at 9:27 AM on October 1, 2012

I would think that a-gape would make sense anywhere that you could say "is gaping". But gape is an uncommon word, the only common use I can think of besides mouths, mouth-like wounds, and mouth-like pits and holes is clothing.
posted by hattifattener at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2012

I think it's less appropriate in hinge-related openings. Mouths and windows are more like holes.
posted by rhizome at 10:19 AM on October 1, 2012

One's fly can be agape, but it probably shouldn't be.
posted by scruss at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My first thought was "legs agape", but maybe that's just me.
posted by doreur at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2012

I would say that "agape" and "mouth" are a collocation, and that there are few other phrases that use the word "agape."

This means that if it is paired with words outside of a restrictive set it's going to sound awkward - not because it's grammatically incorrect, but for the same reason that saying "a light idea" instead of "a bright idea" sounds awkward: it doesn't match the collocational patterns of English.
posted by Paragon at 1:33 PM on October 1, 2012

Not particularly literary, but there is an entire porn category to various non-mouth things being agape and gaping. Or so I've heard...guys talk, you hear things.
posted by kjs3 at 2:38 PM on October 1, 2012

i think anything you could describe as an orifice could be agape.
posted by empath at 3:56 PM on October 1, 2012

I think it would be a more obsolete or odd than incorrect usage. It just sits funny, though. I think if you were going to use it, you'd want to restrict yourself to using it for a mouth or mouthlike thing, or be making a very deliberate allusion.
posted by windykites at 4:01 PM on October 1, 2012

« Older I NEED BREAD!   |   My refrigerator is buzzing loudly. I rent. What... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.