This week, UR and VCU hosted writer Fran Wilde for a workshop on voice. Fran is giving a reading at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to celebrate the release of the anthology His Hideous Heart, where modern authors reinterpret tales by Poe.
During our workshop on campus, I asked her the first word of Poe’s that came to mind, a word she associates with this unique voice.
“Susurrus” is a fine choice! The OED entry calls it a “whispering,” a “rustling.” Think about how the sense of the word fits its sound. That’s called onomatopoeia, a word I had to memorize in high school, and spell correctly lest the yardstick in Father Raymond’s hands came down on me:
From a remote distance, half-sensed in that gloomy place called a school yet more like a Romanesque prison-house beneath a mossy tile roof, I can to this day, in a moment of dread that darkens the sun, almost hear a susurrus of priestly robes, as the phantasmal figure glided toward me, a rod of malice raised high over the rage-knotted face…
I think you get the idea of why Poe enjoyed the word.
If you can imagine the half-heard noises in The House of Usher, you have our onomatopoeic word of the week, as autumnal a term as any that Poe uttered. Though of Latin derivation, the term only dates to 1826. Why it came into being, save as an artistic coinage, remains a mystery.
But that’s just so for this season of the year and for Poe’s work. He did give us the detective story, after all. Let’s get busy solving this one, if we can. I look forward to a susurrus of whispered half-answers.
Special thanks to Fran Wilde for an excellent workshop and a fine Word of the Week! She also provided advice about pronunciation. Accent that second syllabus, sus-SUR-us. I’ve been saying “SU-surrus” for decades, incorrectly. It’s a fine term never encountered in everyday or even academic speech, yet in writing, it conveys enormous power.
Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
Image of Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.