By Josh Bloom
The Fourth Edition
of the American Heritage Dictionary defines a pyrrhic as “a metrical foot
having two short or unaccented syllables”. As several readers may already know, a meter
is an arrangement of words in poetry, and a foot is a unit of measuring syllables
within a meter. Therefore, a pyrrhic is an occasion in verse where two syllables
within a foot are unaccented (unstressed). Sounding out the word pyrrhic best demonstrates
this phenomenon. A pyrrhic is also known as a dibrach.
Pyrrhics in poetry can be used to denote an absence or lack, which the lack in
stress clearly indicates. The word derives from the Latin pyrrhicius, which derived
from the Greek purrikhios; that word came from purrikh,
which meant “war dance”, based on Purrikhos, who purportedly invented
dance. Also, a poetic verse can be described as pyrrhic, meaning that it has characteristics
of a pyrrhic.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary provides a second definition for pyrrhic,
one that might be more common in conversation (when you’re not talking about poetry). Something is Pyrrhic, it says, when it is “achieved at excessive cost”, or is “costly to the point of negating
or outweighing expected benefits”. The source of this usage of the word is Pyrrhus,
a king of Epirus who managed to defeat the Romans, but only by sustaining heavy losses. One
will often see Pyrrhic used in reference to a battle or struggle: “It was
a Pyrrhic victory.”
Perhaps some of our budding poems out there will incorporate pyrrhics into
their work. Hopefully, it won’t be a Pyrrhic effort!