Word of the Week! Susurrus

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.

Reading Poe to PoeBut 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.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Fran Wilde by permission of Ms. Wilde; image of Poe and the author by permission of The Great Beyond.

 

 

Word of the Week! Grotesque

Our word this week began life in an Italian cave, or grotto. As early as the 16th Century, painters captured the primitive feelings of that setting with work called grotesque. So how did the word change over time, to become something revolting and unnatural?

Slowly. By the dawn of the 20th Century, when H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, the artistic sense of the word and its more modern sense were both in play. A definition given by the OED Online, “Characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre,” came to be common. Think of any gargoyle you see on a cathedral. They are nearly all grotesques.

Thanks to Victor, in my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy, for asking about this term used by Wells, as when his narrator remarks, “The apparition of this grotesque, half-bestial creature had suddenly populated the stillness of the afternoon for me.”

Using the Project Gutenberg copy of the text, now in the public domain, I stopped counting at 20 uses of the word. Clearly, Wells was after the human-animal hybrids’ grotesque appearance and behavior. And Dr. Moreau, who makes these “Beast-Men,” certainly had art in mind as much as science, since in the novel he calls the narrator a “materialist” when the narrator questions the practical application of the doctor’s mad experiments.

Please nominate a word (or metaphor!) useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Harum-Scarum

I have had a rather rushed and chaotic week renovating a house we rent, just ahead of new tenants arriving. Thus, I’ve acted rather harum-scarum about this blog, and that gives me a good opportunity to share a favorite word often found in English Literature before 1900.

The OED Online shows a likely etymology as a rhyme made up of hare + scare. If you have walked up on a bunny and watched it flee wildly, going one direction, then another, you get a sense of the recklessness and panic of the resulting harum-scarum behavior. The term is not very old, and the oldest example (perhaps misheard by the writer) from the 17th Century is harum-starum!

Wild, rash, reckless, chaotic, running one way, then another! I frequently see it in Dickensian prose about a “harum-scarum fellow” one cannot trust to act calmly. Not long ago I chastised a friend about his undependable “harum-scarum friends,” knowing that a fellow English Major would get the reference.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image from Nick Park’s excellent 2005 film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, just because I could not resist.