Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Noises off? A guarded tribute to onomatopoeia and sea-sickness

While trying to solve etymological riddles, we often encounter references to sound-imitation where we do not expect them, but the core examples hold no surprise. It seems that nouns and verbs describing all kinds of noises should illustrate the role of onomatopoeia, and indeed, hum, ending in m, makes one think of quiet singing (crooning) and perhaps invites peace, while drum, with its dr-, probably evokes the idea of the noise associated with this instrument. Most helpfully, some dictionaries inform us that humdrum is a word of unknown etymology. Perhaps so, but if both hum and drum refer to acoustics, why is one’s humdrum existence so devoid of gentle sound and noble fury?

We should probably admit that the origin of even the simplest words describing sound may pose problems. Abú, used in Irish battle cries, ended up in English as part of the word hubbub, an onomatopoeia of course, but with a history that had to be reconstructed. A similar case is English babble, gurgle, rattle, prattle, crash, crush, and their likes. Though their nature is obvious, each has a history in need of reconstruction. Some have unmistakable cognates in other Germanic languages and even beyond them. Compare the post on trash (24 March and 31 March 2021). One often wonders whether such words can be borrowed. Multiple examples show that they can. Compare raucous. This adjective is a late borrowing from Latin, which means that the distance between primitive sound imitation and the word we know and use increases. I have also more than once pointed out how bookish and “unnatural” our interjections are (ah, bah, oh, eh, oops, let alone the upsydaisy stuff).

At full blast.
(Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash, public domain)

An especially instructive case is ruckus “a noisy fight; row.” The word has been “known” (that is, current in texts) for about a century and a half. It surfaced in American English, but no one knows where it came from. Nor do too many people care about its shady heritage, if I can judge by the absence of ruckus and its kin (rumpus “disturbance,” ruction “brawl,” and rumbustious “boisterous, violent”) in my huge database of English etymology, which, otherwise, is full of the most exotic regional words (compare ruzzom “an ear of grain,” rykelot “a bird,” and rynt “to get out of the way”) and of course slang. For ruckus I have only a popular note in The Atlantic Monthly (1991). The original OED often used the epithet fanciful about such formations, and fanciful they indeed sometimes are.

(Image: “People suffering from seasickness on board a steam boat.” Reproduction of an etching after R Seymour, via Look and Learn, CC BY 4.0)

The word that, for a long time, has been uppermost in my mind and whose history is the topic of this blog post is noise. A classic case of sound imitation? Not at all! The word’s etymology is supposedly “known,” but its development poses many questions. Greek had two forms corresponding to English “sea-sickness” (pay attention to the “sea” component!): nausía and nautía. Latin borrowed the second of them (we recognize its root in English nautical; and remember Captain Nemo’s Nautilus “little ship”). The word remained in all the modern Romance languages and reached English in the form nausea, but in Old (and Modern) French it also yielded noise “outcry, disturbance” and was taken over by Middle English. Elsewhere in the Old Romance languages, the meanings are “harm, dispute; injury” and even “dung” (so in Old Italian).

Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance philology and the author of the first etymological dictionary of the Romance languages (1853), suggested that noise had been derived from Latin nausea “sea-sickness, disgust,” with “disgust” yielding “loud outcry.” All students of English etymology seem to have accepted this idea. The direct source of noise (already so in Middle English) was Old French noise ~ nose. Incidentally, the English adjective noisome was formed from Middle English noy, for anoy, a borrowing of Old French anoi “vexation.” Thus, English annoy seems to have nothing to do with noise. However, it may be worthwhile to consult The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.

This multivolume work had the ill luck to be launched when the first volumes of the OED began to appear and was thus destined to fall into oblivion. Today, few people open it, but it is an excellent reference work. One of its many editors was Charles Scott, responsible for etymology. His detailed explanations deserve high praise, and consulting them often pays off. This is what he wrote about noise:

(By Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1538, via WikiArts, public domain)

“…according to some, from Latin nausea ‘disgust, nausea….’; according to others, from Latin noxia ‘hurt, harm, damage, injury…’; but neither explanation is satisfactory in regard to either form or sense. Confusion of form and sense with some other words, as those represented by noisome [‘hurtful, mischievous, noxious’ (obsolete)] and noisant [‘harmful, troublesome’; obsolete], annoy, noy [‘trouble, affliction’ also obsolete], noysome, etc. seems to have occurred.”

It was the distinguished philologist Leo Spitzer who made the most serious attempt to trace the way from some Romance word to French and English noise. The Old French source of English noise already had the meaning we know. The earliest Romance texts show that the idea of “illness, languor” often led to “grief,” and here comes Spitzer’s main point: in the extant medieval texts, grief is inseparable from lamentations. Thus is English wail related to woe (by many steps, but the connection is safe). Throughout the Middle Ages, we find ritual wailing, that is, scenes of violent lament following the death of a relative. It should be added that this custom of inviting professional mourners (“weepers”) to the family gathering of a deceased person has been recorded in many countries, and we have vivid descriptions of the rite going back to as late as the twentieth century. In Spitzer’s words, “We may…assume that noise in the meaning ‘noise’ originated from the background of loud wailing or mourning.”

St. Jerome at work.
(By Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The word’s evolution, as Spitzer presents it, incurred the following steps: “sea-sickness, vomiting,” going together with “disgust, boredom” (so in Classical Latin), “illness” or “grief” (so in the canonical text of St. Jerome’s Bible, known as the Vulgate), and finally, “(loud) lament” and “quarrel, strife, discord; noise.” He cited a partly parallel development in Portuguese nojo: from “disgust, vomiting” to “grief” and “mourning.” This is an impressive example of reconstructing the otherwise incomprehensible semantic change. Perhaps one may ask why the starting point of the long way he (as well as Diez and nearly everybody) envisioned was such an unexpected concept as sea-sickness. My doubt pertains to Old French rather than to Middle English, because, as noted, English borrowed the French word wholesale. It is partly up to Romance scholars to decide whether Charles Scott’s doubts were in some way justified. At this stage, we won’t contest Spitzer’s etymology and won’t be annoyed by a few noisant details.

Featured image by Rafael Ishkhanyan on Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    A probably irrelevant parenthesis: when I was at school (1953-8) a spillage of liquid on the floor was called a “naumakhia” (Greek for ‘sea battle’). However there is no entry for this in either of my books of Winchester ‘notions’ (Three Beetleites 1902, Stevens 1998).

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “…noise had been derived from Latin nausea…” ? Highy unlikely! More likely is “noise” derives from “voice”! Which comes from Greek “βοη” (voy). Which means both “voice” as well as “noise”!

    Thought you like to know!

Comments are closed.