In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the literary history of a distinctive word
During the eight years I’ve been running this blog and combing every book, website, and trivia list I can find for eye-catching literature-related facts, one of the most satisfying I’ve discovered is that Emily Brontë, who wrote the novel Wuthering Heights, and Kate Bush, who wrote the song ‘Wuthering Heights’, share a birthday: they were born on 30 July in, respectively, 1818 and 1958.
‘Wuthering’ is such an unusual word that its use in English is almost entirely reserved for Brontë’s 1847 novel, which brought it into the mainstream. It’s hardly true to say the word has since entered common use, since when it is used it’s almost always followed by ‘heights’, in relation to the novel; but it’s certainly a word that’s been brought to a much wider audience thanks to Brontë’s use of this distinctive adjective.
Wuthering Heights was hardly an instant hit. ‘We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house’, one reviewer wrote, before going on to recommend burning the book as the best course of action. ‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery’, another remarked, with an almost visible shake of the head. The North British Review simply said that ‘the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read’. Now, almost two centuries on, Wuthering Heights has to be one of the most widely read – and studied – novels in the English language, but you wouldn’t have guessed it was set for such longevity in 1847.
Even Charlotte, defending but also criticising her sister’s novel following Emily’s death just one year later, in 1848, felt the need to apologise for the ‘rude and strange’ nature of the book, which she attributed to her sister’s rural northern upbringing. Emily died believing her only novel was a critical failure.
Yet Emily’s rural northern upbringing is, of course, what made the novel, with its evocation of the wild moors of Yorkshire and its curious elemental energy, so distinctive and powerful. And even its title conveys that, with its unusual choice of adjective. Near the beginning of Wuthering Heights, the novel’s first narrator, Lockwood, tells us:
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed, in stormy weather.
But where did ‘wuthering’ come from?
Under ‘wuthering’, the Oxford English Dictionary offers the alternative ‘whithering’, defining the adjective as ‘rushing, whizzing, etc.; also, very large or vigorous’. ‘Whithering’ (sometimes ‘withering’) seems to have been more prevalent in print until Brontë’s novel came along in 1847. Meanwhile, the OED also offers ‘whitherer’, defined by Francis Grose (a wonderful source of curious and colourful eighteenth-century slang) in a 1790 glossary as a ‘lusty, strong, or stout person, or thing’.
And it’s a similar story for other related terms found in the same OED entry: the corresponding verb, ‘whither’, meaning to rush or make a rushing sound (again, usually in reference to the wind), is found as ‘whither’ or ‘whidder’ in the main, and only becomes ‘wuther’ (or ‘whudder’) in the nineteenth century.
There is, however, an instance of the verb ‘whudder’ which predates Wuthering Heights: ‘To Whudder, to make a whizzing or rushing sort of noise.’ This definition is taken from John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language from 1825. And yes, ‘wuther’, ‘whither’, and related terms are more readily associated with Scotland than with northern England, although – as so often with these terms – there is some geographical overlap. The OED tells us that the etymology of ‘wuthering’ and related terms is, ultimately, the Old Norse hviðra, which is cognate with the Norwegian kvidr, meaning ‘to go to and fro with short quick movements’, as well as to hviða, denoting a squall of wind.
Indeed, a quick scan of nineteenth-century documents in Google Books reveals hers to be the earliest use of ‘wuthering’, although of course that repository is hardly exhaustive and instances of the word in print before 1847 doubtless exist. Nevertheless, before her novel came along and brought the word to a wider audience, ‘wuthering’ appears to have been more common as a spoken term than as a written one.
After Brontë, the word took on a life of its own. Gerard Manley Hopkins used it in his great 1879 poem about the composer Henry Purcell:
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.
Meanwhile, Robert Louis Stevenson memorably used ‘wuthered’ in his 1889 novel The Wrong Box, a book he co-authored with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne: ‘From time to time the wind wuthered in the chimney at his back; from time to time there swept over Bloomsbury a squall so dark that he must rise and light the gas’.
Indeed, another word which Brontë’s novel did effectively introduce into the world of mainstream literature was altogether less glamorous, but infinitely more useful: ‘gormless’. The word, another local dialect term originally, appears as ‘gaumless’, but it’s clearly related to our modern spelling of the word: ‘Did I ever look so stupid, so “gaumless”, as Joseph calls it,’ Heathcliff says to the novel’s second narrator, Nelly Dean.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.