Susurrating in Your Ear


Susurrating pines

My niece looked up from her book. “What does susurrate mean?” she asked. The other adults on the beach looked at me, because that’s what happens if you are an English professor. “Spelled how?” I responded, buying time and thinking perhaps something about the word would become familiar. “S-u-s-u-r-r-a-t-e.” The spelling did not help at all. “I don’t know that word,” I concluded. Her mom ventured, “Whisper?”

Bingo. One of our friends had pulled out a phone and looked it up. While the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online have the noun susurration, they do not have the verb susurrate. But a straightforward Google search yields this definition of the verb: “(of leaves, wind, etc.) make a whispering or rustling sound.” The word is labeled “literary,” and the sample quote is “the grass susurrated underfoot.”

Readers whose Latin is less rusty than mine may know susurrus, a noun referring to a low sound like whispering or murmuring (or, as a reader pointed out, susurrar is a common verb for whispering in Spanish). The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of susurrate is 1623 in Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie. The word is rare (and is so labeled in the OED), and a search of Google Books shows that many of the early references are in reference works like dictionaries.

In 1983, though, the verb pops up in an article in the journal Language: “Bees Are Swarming in the Garden: A Systematic Synchronic Study of Productivity,” by Morris Salkoff. The study is interested in verbs that can appear in pairs of sentences such as Bees are swarming in the garden and The garden is swarming with bees. Or, to provide an example with a verb of sound: Flies buzzed in the bottle and The bottle buzzed with flies. The article ends with appendices of verbs that can do this, and susurrate appears in the list of “verbs of sound,” along with babble, boom, clip-clop, fizzle, plink, plop, swish, warble, wheeze, and many other wonderful verbs. (I had to look up tattoo as a verb of sound; the OED defines it as “to beat (a drum, etc.).”)

The article pre-dates systematic corpus-based studies; the determinations of acceptability are based on dictionaries, hand-searching modern American literature and newspapers, and the native English-speaker intuitions of three linguists. Susurrate is unusual enough that I wondered how the claim about susurrate would hold up to the Google Books database. With many instances, the agent is making the low, soft noise: for example, “a breeze susurrated through wild flowers” and “the ocean soughed and sighed and susurrated” and “an indescribable human sound susurrated through the room.” But it is also possible for a place to susurrate, as in this example from the book Greek Ritual Poetics (2004): “ … the whole slope all along the seafoam way over my head spoke oracles and susurrated with myriad mauve tremblings and cherubic little insects … ”

If you’re now wondering whether the title of this post captures acceptable usage, it is not unheard of for human beings to susurrate — for example, from the book Tokyo Cancelled (2007): “The nurses susurrated, trying to bring calm and allow the new mother to rest … ”

I think I still prefer swishing skirts to susurrating ones, and my car will probably always hum rather than susurrate. I’m pleased now to have susurrate securely tucked away in my passive lexicon (even though I no longer have to take the SAT), and I appreciate the alliteration of susurrating sounds. But I’m not yet convinced I would be a better writer with this verb. When it comes to those sweet nothings, I’ll be whispering.

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