Gyre, A Word for Our Times

By Maeve Maddox

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The noun gyre means, “a turning round, revolution, whirl; a circular or spiral turn.”

Birds often fly in gyres as they make use of thermal columns of air.

Ocean currents that move in circular patterns are called gyres.

The verb gyre means, “to move in a circle or spiral.”

The verb gyrate means to move in a circle or spiral; to revolve, usually around a fixed point or on an axis; to rotate, whirl.

A gyroscope, from Greek gyros, “a circle,” is an instrument designed to illustrate the dynamics of rotating bodies.

I may have first encountered gyre—as I imagine a great many readers have—in the first lines of “The Second Coming” (1919) by William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Yeats’ use of gyre in a poem that describes the breakdown of traditional patterns of order has not only popularized the word with writers, but also imbued it with a connotation of postmodern social dysfunction.

Even the oceanic use of the term has become associated with the horrendous mountains of plastic wreaking havoc on the environment:

The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris particles in the north-central Pacific Ocean.—Wikipedia

This plastic pollution doesn’t accumulate forever, rapidly fragmenting in the gyres, it is pushed outward across the planet, where it washes up on beaches or settles on the seafloor, much like smog does in the air.—The Huffington Post

Browsing Amazon Books, I counted thirteen titles that contain the word gyre. Six of the thirteen titles consist of or include the phrase, “the widening gyre.” At least some of the books seem to have dystopian themes.

Some examples of the word’s use drawn from journalists:

With Trump turning and turning in a widening gyre. . .—George Will

The continuing wars in Ukraine and Syria, the apparent Russian campaign of targeted assassinations on foreign soil, the widening gyre of sanctions and countersanctions.—New York Times Magazine

. . . “the “widening gyre,” the Internet’s — or is it our society’s? — tendency toward chaos.— Washington Post

Slipping Dany loose of the moorings that bound her both to her family’s extended history and the best acts of her own epic story makes sense as a way to truly send her spiraling into a widening gyre.—Game of Thrones review.

This post was prompted by a passage in the novel, The Nature of the Beast. A great fan of Louise Penney (I’ve read all the Gamache books and tend to reread them while waiting for the next one) I was surprised to see her treat the word gyre as too strange to remember the meaning of. She has the poet Ruth Zardo quote the “widening gyre” line from the Yeats poem and then ask, “What’s a gyre?”

Gamache responds:

“I have no idea,” Gamache admitted. “I think I looked it up once.”

On the other hand, another of my favorite writers, Sue Grafton, throws the word into her narration as a matter of course. In W is for Wasted, Kinsey Millhone is called to identify a John Doe:

When I reached the coroner’s office, I was ushered into a bay with the curtain discreetly pulled around the ceiling track. Though curious, I wasn’t apprehensive. I’d done a quick survey and could account for the people I knew and loved. There were those who orbited my world in a wider gyre, but I couldn’t think of one whose death would have had a significant impact.

In simplest terms, a gyre is a circle. Metaphorically, it is a word fraught with meaning.

See for yourself: The Second Coming

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1 Response to “Gyre, A Word for Our Times”

  • Gloria Tran

    Fascinating exposition of the word “gyre.”

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