We’ve all been using the word thunderous wrong.
Go ahead, use it in a sentence.
Did you use it as a synonym for loud? If so, you’ll be in good company with the folks at Merriam-Webster, who write of thunderous applause, as well as the thunder of big guns and horses that thundered down the road.
Now, recall what thunder sounds like.
Sure, it’s loud — at first. But then it pulses and washes over the landscape, fading and echoing, depending on what physical forms it encounters as it recedes. Thunder heard from inside your living room sounds different from thunder rippling through a canyon, or slamming into a mountain summit, or blanketing you alone and isolated in a tent.
There’s the way distant thunder can sound threatening when it’s a storm arriving, soothing when it’s a storm leaving and unnerving when you hear it in January, as many of us in the Highlands did last week. Distant thunder never gets described as “thunderous.”
The British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has noted that once you learn that there’s an obscure word from Sussex to describe the gap in the base of a hedge or thicket of reeds made by the repeated passage of a small animal — a smeuse — you notice them everywhere. Then you start to think about what animal is doing all that smeusing, about where it came from and where it’s going. But the point is, another hidden dimension of the landscape has been revealed.
What hidden lands are we closing ourselves off from when we reduce the volumes of information conveyed in thunder into “loud”?
OK, this is nitpicky. But since it’s my job to choose the right words, I lose sleep thinking about if there’s a connection between imprecise language to describe the natural world and the general mess we’ve been making of it. I suppose it comes down to a lack of attention, and respect. If there’s no difference between a creek and a brook, who cares what gets dumped into it?
I’ve been slowly making my way through Syntax of the River, a newly released interview with nature writer Barry Lopez that took place in 2010 by the side of a river. In her introduction, Julia Martin writes that “whenever anyone came by — six female mergansers flying upriver into the sun, a great blue heron hunting — Barry would follow the thread of their presence for as long as it took, and he’d tell their stories.”
You probably did not expect anyone to refer to birds. If you find your garden dug up and the strawberries missing, you wouldn’t suspect “someone.” But what happens to our view of the world when animals are always “something”?
Many years ago I went with a friend to visit his family farm. Each year, they would raise a small herd of cattle, a portion of which would end up in the chest freezer. To help differentiate them, the family would pick a theme. That year it was King Arthur’s Court.
“So who was this?” my friend asked at the dinner table. “Lancelot,” his father said, sliding the philandering knight’s loins onto our plates.
The table was animated by a deep and lively gratitude for someone they knew that made the sacrifice of dying so that we may be sustained. There was no denying the shock of the food chain.
I am not advocating you name your burgers. But it’s worth considering if being more careful with language can make you more careful in how you treat the world around you. The right word can create a connection that ripples and reverberates outward in a way that you might call, well, thunderous.
I always enjoy Brian PJ Cronin’s writing, and I’m glad to see an animal referred to as someone rather than something. But in keeping with the goal of being precise with language because the way we describe the natural world affects how we treat it, isn’t it less precise to say that Lancelot the cow “made the sacrifice of dying so that we may be sustained” (a comforting, romantic notion), than to say he was unwillingly slaughtered?
These words give me hope for the humanity of humans: “But what happens to our view of the world when animals are always ‘something’?”