No One Will Believe This of Vast Import to the Nation

This line, the final one of William Carlos William’s poem “Pastoral,” has always been fixed in mind.

It’s an effective and arresting line, poetically speaking, which is the main reason. But it was also the first time I’d seen the word import used in that way.

In this context, it basically means importance. And of course the words are similar. Both entered the English language in the 16th century, importance probably a little earlier. Import isn’t a short form of importance, but rather a use of the verb to import as a noun. I don’t mean to import with its modern meaning of bringing goods into a country, but rather with the now fairly archaic sense of to convey, show the meaning of.

Both senses of to import are from the Latin importare (bring in, convey), with im- being a transformation of in- to make pronunciation easier, and portare meaning to carry (think of words like porter, portable, transport). Even though both meanings of the word are quite different, they share the same idea of carrying something inside: only with one it’s carrying ideas into your mind.

Funnily enough, using import in the abstract sense of conveying meaning is slightly older than the more practical meaning of transporting goods, dating to the beginning of the 16th century, maybe 40 or 50 years earlier than the more prosaic meaning. I suppose the mundane reason is that in the 1500s, not many people were transporting goods internationally.

Still, it’s interesting that we used the more abstract, poetic form of the word first. Perhaps that’s not of vast import to the nation, but I wonder if someone like William Carlos Williams would have appreciated that.

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