Daily Archives: December 7, 2009

stentorian

When I was a child, itinerant preachers would sometimes come through the area, set up a tent and have a camp meeting. They would address the hundreds gathered on folding metal chairs in loud voices so God and the neighbours could hear (and no snore would taint the hortatory). Such tent orations take stentorian voices: sonorous, orotund.

O, o, o… How does it come to be that words for loudness so often have these o‘s? We can’t say that they only come from the mouth shape of the letter o. There is a greater sense of echo when the oral cavity is wide open (with the tongue at the back) but the lips are rounded. The narrower opening increases the pressure coming out, too – those who have used Xcelerator hand driers know that a narrower stream of air moves faster and makes much more noise. Add to this the st_nt first syllable, which, whether in stunt, stint, or stent can seem to rear like a lion rampant.

Is such a voice the sound of authority? It can certainly command rotations of the head. But the owner of one may equally be just a loudmouth. Stentorian is applied to a variety of loud things, from singing to jubilation to the bellows of animals. The aesthetics of the word (and perhaps resonances of senator) may aid an air of authority, or perhaps just a sense like that of a trumpet sound – rather than tan-ta-ra it may blow sten-tor. (There is, too, a unicellular trumpet-shaped organism called stentor.)

I’ve known a few people at various times throughout my life who have had truly stentorian voices. They weren’t necessarily the orneriest – nor the ornatest – but they could certainly cut through glass just talking. One such was a neighbour, whose conversational voice sounded like an address to a person in the next room. Another was in a production of Marat/Sade I was in. In moments where crowd shouting was needed, we knew what was in store and I would try not to stand near him. Another is in the choir I sing in. Should there be opportunity to open the throat and roar in oratorio or other entertainment, he is the sort to hurt your ear if you are the next chorister.

But the archetype of them all was Stentor, a Greek warrior – a herald, unsurprisingly – mentioned in the Iliad, who was as loud as fifty men. He is said to have died after losing a shouting match to Hermes. Ironically, the adjective formed from Hermes, hermetic, suggests silence and secrecy. Perhaps silence truly can be deafening.

Thanks to my mother, Mary Anna Harbeck, for suggesting today’s word.