A dactyl (pronounced 'DACK-till', IPA: /ˈdæk tɪl/) is a metrical foot of three syllables, the first syllable stressed and the second and third syllables unstressed - as in such words as 'carelessly', 'masterful', 'dangerous', 'Netherlands', and 'pendulum'. The adjective is dactylic - ('dack-TILL-ick', IPA: /ˌdæk ˈtɪl ɪk /), though dactylic may also be used as a noun to mean a dactylic metrical foot, or a line of verse composed of such feet.
Poems written exclusively in dactylic metre are relatively uncommon in English because dactylic lines have feminine endings (i.e., they do not end with a stressed syllable), and it is not as easy to find rhymes for such lines (i.e., feminine rhymes) as it is for lines which do end with a stressed syllable. To meet the relative difficulty of finding feminine rhymes poets sometimes shorten the last foot of a dactylic line so that it consists of a single stressed syllable - the technical term used to describe such a shortened foot or line is catalectic.
The following lines are the first verse of The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood (1798-1845), with the stressed syllables printed in bold type. You will see that the first and third lines are composed of two dactylic feet - each line is a dactylic dimeter - while the second and fourth lines have the final foot shortened to a single stressed syllable - each line is a dactylic dimeter catalectic.
- One more Unfortunate,
- Weary of breath,
- Rashly importunate,
- Gone to her death!
This account of dactyl, as it stands, fits English poetry and most medieval and modern European poetry, where poetic rhythm is constituted by the patterned arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, in the poetry of Classical Greece and Rome and in Classical Arabic poetry metre consists in the patterned arrangement not of stressed and unstressed syllables but of long and short syllables (see quantitative metre). In this context a dactyl is a metrical foot of three syllables, the first syllable long and the second and third syllables short.
- Etymological note:The words dactyl and dactylic come from the Greek word daktulos (δάκτυλος), which means 'finger' ('or, oddly, 'date' (the fruit), which comes from a palm-tree, phoenix dactylifera, whose leaves were seen as shaped like fingers). The adjective from daktulos.- daktulikos (δακτυλικός) - was used by the ancient Greeks themselves to describe a dactylic metrical foot. They chose this word because they thought that a dactylic metrical foot with one long syllable and two short ones resembles a human finger, which has one long joint and two shorter ones. (The same element occurs in the name pterodactyl of a flying dinosaur and in various medical and anatomical combinations, such as 'dactylitis', inflammation of a finger or toe; and various medical dictionaries give dactyl as a synonym for digit, from the Latin equivalent of the Greek 'dactyl', which it is probably etymologically related.