In last week’s post we took a look at words meaning to raise one’s voice, so it seems only fair to look this week into the quieter end of the spectrum.
The verb hush showed up in English in the 1540s, with the noun & interjection forms appearing in the 1600s.
The early 1300s brought us the word mutter, meaning to mumble. It came from an imitative Proto-Indo-European word mut-, to grumble or mutter.
Murmur, an expression of discontent made by grumbling, came to English in the 1400s from the Old French word murmure, which came from the Latin word murmurare. It wasn’t until the 1600s that murmur meant softly spoken words (noun) or to speak softly (verb).
In the early 1300s the word mumble (spelled momelen) meant to eat in a slow, ineffective manner. By the end of the 1300s it picked up the meaning to speak indistinctly. Though it seems logical mumble might have come from the word mum, as in mum’s the word, mumble predates mum by two centuries, & nobody really knows mumble’s parentage.
The oft-ignored word susurration appeared in English in the 1400s from Latin, meaning a whispering or murmur.
The word whisper is an Old English word, once spelled hwisprian, meaning to murmur or speak softly. Though many modern speakers can’t even hear the difference, those of us “of a certain age” were taught to pronounce words beginning with wh-differently than those beginning with w-, & the Old English spelling hwisprian throws a little light on why the burst of air comes before the w- in words like the word whisper.
Please share any thoughts on all this in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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