this is a quote from Winston Churchill:

I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me —the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus—or even the Lord Mayor’s Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and I let it go.

What is the meaning of "the Byss and the Abyss" in this context?

Also, can you tell that I am reading the first sentences right?

one time I had a feeling about Mathematics. I thought I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me.

1 Answer 1


According to the OED, byss is an obsolete word meaning the opposite of “abyss”. “A” is sometimes a prefix denoting negation. So I’m guessing Churchill means “infinite heights and infinite depths”. He’s being poetical, and comparing this to infinity and negative infinity.

It’s not a word you will ever see in normal speech or writing. It’s one of two words in that quote that I, as a well read native English speaker, have never, ever encountered.

  • I searched a little and in the book " Performance: Media and technology edited by Philip Auslander" found this: " Abyss is from the Greek that means without bottom or depth and byss means a finite depth and Abyss means infinite depth." I think this makes sense better. Jun 22, 2019 at 18:18
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    This is what the OED says in full "In the philosophy of Boehme: The opposite of abyss or void; plenum, substance, ground of attributes." So a "lesser depth doesn't really make sense, but I guess neither does "infinite height". To an extent, I was basing my interpretation on how Churchill was using it. Jun 22, 2019 at 18:21
  • Can I just ask another question? how do you read this part: that I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me —the Byss and the Abyss. Is it like: that I saw it all the byss and the Abyss, Depth beyond depth was revealed to me? or are they three separate but continuing parts? Jun 22, 2019 at 21:43
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    He’s using the word “depth” in the sense of “profound”, so something like “profundity beyond profundity”. In other words, each thing he learned revealed more things to learn. At least that’s my takeaway. It is, however, a complex and poetic passage, so I could well be wrong as to the original intent. Jun 22, 2019 at 21:57
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    "The Byss and the Abyss" should be read as expanding on "Depth beyond depth was revealed to me". You could read it as "...I saw it all: Depth beyond depth was revealed to me and the Byss and the Abyss". Both are things he "saw". Jun 22, 2019 at 23:25

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