Imbue

By Maeve Maddox

The old word imbue seems to be taking on new meanings. First let’s look at the only definitions currently given in the OED:

imbue (transitive verb)
1. To saturate, wet thoroughly (with moisture); to dye, tinge, impregnate (with color or some physical quality).

 2. To impregnate, permeate, pervade, or inspire (with opinions, feelings, habits, etc.).

Merriam-Webster concurs:

imbue (transitive verb)
1.  to tinge or dye deeply
2. to cause to become penetrated: impregnate, permeate

Here are some examples of traditional usage:

…[Robert] Schuman’s desire to imbue his musical works with the character of literary texts.

[Ian Fleming] implemented a strict schedule for his writing [and] meticulously researched facts to imbue his works with realism.

helping out with the family business…imbued her with the entrepreneurial spirit…

The ruling classes and the intellectual elites in the emerging Haitian state remain imbued with French culture. 

[When Pickwick is jailed] the lighthearted atmosphere of the novel changes, and the reader is given intimations of the gloom and sympathy with which Dickens was to imbue his later works.

The audience got a taste of how literature imbues the world with infinite possibilities.

Notice that in each example, the verb imbue is used with the preposition with:

imbue his musical works with character of literary texts
imbue his works with realism
imbued her with the entrepreneurial spirit
remain imbued with French culture
with which to imbue his later works
imbues the world with infinite possibilities

Because imbue tends to be a literary word, I was surprised to see it used with the preposition to in this sentence on a literary site:

Certain writers in the modern day and age use archaic terms such as “thy”, “thee”, and “wherefore” to imbue a Shakespearean mood to their work.

I’ve also encountered nonstandard usage of imbue in other contexts:

this post is me, taking my own advice…in an effort to reveal qualities which I endeavor to imbue in future illustrations.

Sadly, many people only know indoor plants for their decorative value and are largely unaware of the many benefits they imbue to those who share their spaces.

The first writer seems to be using imbue in the sense of instill; the second, with the sense of impart.

A piece of fabric may be imbued with dye. A child may be imbued with feelings, beliefs, and habits of mind. The image is that of a liquid being poured over something that soaks it up.

So why are some speakers beginning “imbue things to”?

One possibility could be the new use of imbue as gaming jargon:

  How to make an imbue
Weapon Imbues and WoD
Switching the imbue on your offhand weapon

In this context, the noun “imbue” refers to something added to a weapon to permeate it with certain powers. In gaming-speak, it is possible to imbue powers to an item.

Those who imbue items are known as Artificers.
Select the enchantment [you] wish to imbue to the item.

Imbue is also enjoying popularity as a brand name for various products and enterprises.

Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth
Imbue Pain Relief Patch
Imbue Design
Imbue Winterguard
Imbue Apparel
Imbue Youth Movement

Bottom Line: Apart from its use as jargon, imbue is a transitive verb. The preposition used with it is with.

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3 Responses to “Imbue”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Excellent piece! Before, I had a tincture of understanding of the term. Now, I am imbued with it.

  • David

    I’ve played plenty of video games that involve imbuing a weapon with a certain element or power, but I’ve never come across the phrase “imbue to.” That sounds so clunky! Hopefully my fellow gamers wise up before it becomes too popular.

  • venqax

    My guess is that it is simply another example of not knowing what a word really means, and using it as if it interchangeable with another word that “kind of sounds the same”. So, instill, impart, imbue, install, they all mean the same thing, right? Home and hone, insidious and invidious, imply and infer, etc.

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