A Few More Bodily Motion Terms II
Bill Long 7/26/08
Singult and Quassation
A singult, derived from the Latin word singultus, is a sob. The OED says that it is an obsolete word, and it doesn't have a quotation using it more recently than Scott's 1820 usage: "Had he foreseen it was to cost you these tears and singults..." The linguistic reach of singult is a bit broader than that and can suggest, in addition to a sob, a hiccup, rattle in the throat (a "rale") or a sigh. I get the impression that a heaving sigh of a greatly-afflicted person could be called a singult. From 1756: "Heart-thrilling cries, with sobs and singults sore." Spenser first used the term in Faerie Queene III.xi.12:
"There an huge heape of singults did oppresse
His strugling soule."
Or, from a few centuries later:
So, when her teares was stopt from eyther eye,
Her singults, blubberings, seem'd to make them flye
Out at her oyster-mouth and nosethrils wide."
Nosethril? The word "nostril" has been spelled more than a dozen different ways in the history of the English language, but it originates in "Nosethirl," where a "thirl" is a "hole, bore, perforation; aperture."
A singultient person is one who is sobbing. "The great Universe wakes with a deep-drawn singultient breath." Or, describing the natural world, James Howell (Parly of Beasts) could write: "Som of ripe age will screech, cry, and howle in so many disordered notes and singultient accents." Yet, when this rather rare word becomes singultous it means "affected with a hiccup." I think we are trying to force it into too narrow a Procrustean bed if we confine it either to sighs or sobs or hiccups or rattles in the throat. Let's revive it for the wide variety of non-snoring, non-eructation sounds that come from the mouth. Indeed, Evangelical Christians and others who believe in prayers which have "sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8), ought to be in the forefront of the effort to recover singult for our day. It is better than the traditional name of this kind of prayer: ejaculatory prayer. Someone just may get the wrong impression if you use those words...
A quassatio in Latin is a violent shaking. We have a tendency to see the "qui/qua" root and think of something "quiet" or "peaceful," but we couldn't be more wrong in this case. To be more specific, a quassatio is a crushing or bruising. Quassatio derives from the verb quassare, which means "to shake repeatedly, cause to tremble violently, damage, batter, bruise." Indeed, the English verb quash is related to this. Quash means, like "squash," to crush, destroy, bring to nothing, stifle, put down or suppress completely." In law, the quashing of a motion is to make null or void, to throw out or to stop something completely (or to quash an indictment, for example). Quassation, however, doesn't seem to be related to our verb "quass," which is another word for quaff or "drink copiously or in excess."
Returning, then, to quassation. The word goes back to the 15th century in English, and though it is termed "obsolete" by the OED, it seemed to be pretty common throughout the 19th century. Some uses of the term follow. From 1653: "This is most certain, that Egges suffer quassation, concussion, and dissolution very easily, if any man disturb them while the Hen is Sitting." From 1845: "After a little further quassation, the delinquent was suffered to escape." Then, there is a pharmaceutical usage from 1897: "reducing roots and tough bark to pieces, to facilitate the extraction of their chief active principles."
The adjective quassitive, given to shaking or trembling, yields this amusing 1632 quotation: "A French-mans heart is more quassitive and subject to tremor, then an English-mans." This line reminds me of a conversation in the Academy Award-winning movie Chariots of Fire, where the four-member British Olympic committee was deciding on whether to approach the French for a favor during the 1924 Paris Olympics in order to enable Eric Liddell not to have to run on Sunday, which would have violated his religious scruples. One of the old battle-axes on the committee talked about the cowardice of the "Frogs," who were totally unreliable in war and probably shouldn't therefore be expected to yield any help in peace. Did they, then, have quassative hearts?
Conclusion--From Quassation to Other Words
The Century has the following quotation: "Continual contusions, threshing, and quassations, from Gayton's Notes on Don Quixote, p. 68. What is a contusion? The Latin contusionem, from the verb contundere, means a "crushing" or "bruising." The verb contuse means either to bruise or crush or pound or to injure as by a blow with a blunt instrument without breaking the skin. In fact, there is also a verb contund, which means pretty much the same thing as contuse. Finally, the word threshing is identical to the word thrashing and means to beat, batter, strike, knock or deliver or inflict blows as with a flail.
When I wrote about jactitation, I focused on the "shaking" action that was experienced by one jactitated. But quassation seems to be a more severe shaking or beating than jactitation. I don't know why we can't recover the word quassation today, in our time when the incidents of shaking deaths, for example, are on the rise. But then, if we did that, we might also have to invent a new verb--to quassate, or something like that. And, if we already are committed to inventing a verb pandiculate, it might be too much to do so for quassate.
Enough on words for one more day. Go and enjoy the day...