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bathos, bathetic

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bathos, bathetic


  • Bathos: A descent from moving artistry to the ridiculous.
  • Bathetic: To be full of bathos.
  • Cf. pathos, pathetic

‘Bathos’ sounds like: BAY-thoss (IPA: ‘beθɑs, or British ‘beθɒs)


Diagram showing etymology of 'bathos'

Etymology of ‘bathos’

Seeds of literary bitterness:

  • In Ancient Greek, bathos (also sometimes transliterated as bathous) means depth.
  • In 1727, the English poet (and not-very-nice-person) Alexander Pope introduced a new meaning for bathos in a twisted ‘how to’ guide to poetry, which he called Peri Bathous (which means ‘Concerning Depth’).

    Illustration of Alexander Pope

    Alexander Pope

  • Pope’s title echoes the title of an ancient poetry guide (from around 200 A.D.) called ‘Peri Hypnous’ (‘Concerning the Sublime’). On the surface both works are training manuals for poets, but on closer look they are really opposites:
    • Peri Hypnous, is a serious list of ways to ‘ascend’ into the sublime in poetry;
    • Peri Bathous is an ironical list of ways you can ‘sink’ into the depths of terrible verse.

    The point of Pope’s ‘guide’ is not really to teach you how to write bad poetry; it is to make fun of how badly Pope’s contemporaries wrote. Pope’s work was brilliantly composed, scandalous, and cruelly sarcastic—and therefore, naturally, hugely popular in literary circles.

  • Though the full text of Peri Bathous lists several types of bad verse, the one ‘method’ from the work that really struck a cord with his readers was the use of bathos to talk about artists who juxtapose the serious/grand with the trivial/ ridiculous. Literary types today still use bathos, and the related adjectival form bathetic, for that particularly awful juxtaposition.

Illustration showing other derivatives of 'bathos'.

Related ‘deep’ words.

Scientific depth:

Scientists and technicians have also, over the years, coined many terms based on the ancient Greek words for depth and deep. For example, a bathysphere (a kind of diving sphere) is literally a deep ball

There is nothing sarcastic or scandalous about these bathos/bathus/bathy words—but if you’re into science and technology, has a nice sampling here.



  • Alexander Pope, by Anthony Hecht, in The Yale Review Volume 95, Issue 1
  • The complete critical guide to Alexander Pope, by Paul Bains, Routledge
  • “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
  • “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
  • Online Etymology Dictionary
  • “Pseudo-Longinus.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 16. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 683. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

The quotation in the second “bathos” cartoon is based on a line from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, cited in the OED.

Music in audio (but not the “fart” sound effect!) is from the cello concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvorak. Musician: John Michel CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The “fart” sound effect is a public domain file from

The small image of a bathysphere is a public domain image from the U.S. Federal Government (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), see here for more information.

All other images and audio in this post are original creations by Dr. Dexterous, Copyright ©2013


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