The soughing wind, or: in praise of very old words

It seems like it has been even quieter than usual in quiet little Queensborough these past couple of days. After being in big, noisy Montreal just a short while ago, I have found it refreshing to be back home and to be reminded of the stillness and peace of this place. There has, however, been one sound breaking (though barely) the stillness around the Manse last evening and tonight. It is the sound of the wind soughing in the branches of the huge old evergreens in front of the house.

Isn’t “soughing” an evocative word?

It’s not exactly a word that one uses every day; and in fact I’m not even 100-per-cent sure how to pronounce it. I believe it’s along the lines of “sowing” (rhymes with “wowing”), though I kind of think the “gh” in it should mean it’s to be pronounced with a bit of extra breathiness – which would be only appropriate, given that “sough” is a verb that means (depending on which online dictionary you use; Raymond and I are well-provided with real dictionaries in our Montreal home, but unfortunately none of them are here at the Manse for me to refer to tonight) “to make a moaning or sighing sound,” or “to make a moaning, whistling or rushing sound,” or “to make a soft murmuring or rustling sound.” Anyway, you get the picture. The sound picture, that is.

As I was listening to the wind blowing through our trees last night – a sound that, though soothing, makes one feel glad to be indoors and warm – that word “soughing,” which I probably hadn’t thought of in decades, just came into my head. It was the perfect word to describe what I was hearing. I remember back in elementary school being taught about words that sound like the things they are describing – “buzz” and “slither” and “hiccup” and “wail” and “raucous” and so on; it’s called onomatopoeia, as I’m sure you know. “Soughing” is definitely one of those words.

And if those online dictionaries are to be believed (and in this case, I think they are) it is an extremely old word. “Middle English swoughen, from Old English swōgan; akin to Gothic gaswogjan to groan,” says one in regard to its etymology. “Middle English swowen, soughen, from Old English swgan,” says another. One says it’s been in use since before the 12th century; another says before 900 AD.

So I guess people have been thinking about wind soughing in the branches for quite some time before I did this weekend at the Manse. I like the idea of an old, old word still being just the right word to describe something that is, let’s face it, eternal. Wind will always be sighing – soughing – in branches.

And on another note: let’s have a listen to the wonderful (and equally eternal) John Prine on the topic of, yes, onomatopoeia! “‘Bang!’ went the pistol, ‘Crash!’ went the window, ‘Ouch!’ went the son of a gun/Onomatopoeia/I don’t wanna see ya/Speaking in a foreign tongue.” Here’s John:

2 thoughts on “The soughing wind, or: in praise of very old words

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