The sultry season: the sun’s sweltering assault and the incessant insult of the sweaty thick air. Your skin drips and your lips are salty; you are swimming and your fingers seem as sultanas. Unless you are a sultan, you are likely to become sulky and sullen… and truly thirsty.
Or, if you follow Noel Coward, you could be a mad dog or an Englishman and survive. Coward’s jaunty (and somewhat racist) song glorifying the oblivious hardiness of the pasty imperialists has this stanza:
In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.
Truth be told, I find the word sultry almost too alluring in that context. Although it refers to heat, and by typical implication humidity too, it has overtones lacking in, for instance, sweltering. That word has a welter of heat in it and a strong sense of sweat. Sultry, on the other hand, though it has such negative echoes as sullen, sulk, and insult, somehow has something silky in it too. It has come to be used figuratively in reference to sexual allure, especially feminine and especially in specific performative aspects. The most common word seen in the company of sultry is voice – speaking, singing, growling, murmuring, what have you: it is a voice that will make you sweat. There are also sultry eyes. And there are sultry days, afternoons, nights, scenes of languor and of lust.
The attribution to a sensuous siren is a recent one – less than a century old in this kind of use. References to passions and lusts go much farther back, as we may expect: to the 1600s, not long after the word first appeared. But even in the poetry of the 1800s the references are nearly all literal or barely extended: sultry dawn, sultry day, sultry mead, sultry breeze, sultry silence, sultry scents, sultry leagues of tropic seas, sultry stars of summer, sultry passion-flowers, sultry wings, a sultry, yellow sky, and much sultry heat.
Sultry is heavy, hot, sweaty, yes, but somehow almost alluringly so, at least sometimes. It is an ulterior sweltry. Quite literally, in fact. Sultry comes from sulter, which is an alternate form of swelter, which gives us sweltering and sweltry. And where does swelter come from? It is an old word, one that has always been in the language, but at first it referred not to heat, nor just to fading away from heat. Here it is in the third verse of the third chapter of Genesis, in Old English:
and of ðæs treowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebead us ðæt we ne æton, ne we ðæt treow ne hrepodon, ði læs ðe we swelton.
Do you see it? The last word, swelton. Here is what the above means:
and of the tree’s fruit that is in the middle of Paradise, God commanded us that we not eat, nor that we touch the tree, lest we die.
So we see from the story of the creation of the world how the word has evolved, in its form and in its sense: Die. Evanesce. Fade away. Then fade away from hunger, from heat. Then experience the heat. Then be the heat. Then be hot. But from the first to the last, it is wrapped up in fatal desire…