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                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!



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