Thursday, November 17, 2016

From sound to silence

From sound to silence

Our modern word sound comes to us from three sources.

Most the meanings of the word sound started in Latin, then bounced around between Old French and Old English before settling down into the meanings that follow.

As a noun, sound  can mean:
-sensation sensed through the ear

As a verb, sound can mean:
-to be audible
-to cause an instrument to make sound
-to measure the depth of

The noun meaning a narrow channel or body of water, however, came from the Old Norse word sund, which meant both swimming & strait.

The adjective form of sound meaning free from defect or injury came from an Old English word meaning safe, or having all faculties. This word was gesund, which, as you might have guessed, made its way into German to become gesundheit. 

The term safe & sound showed up in the late 1400s. Sound-proof was born in 1853, ultrasound came about in 1911, sound barrier in 1939, sound effects in 1909, & sound check in 1977. 

And the absence of sound is silence, a word that appeared in English in the 1200s from an unknown source through Latin & Old French.

Some silence-inspired meanings, words & idioms include:
-A Victorian idiom meaning the dead (1874)
-silencer - the mechanism that stifles the noise made by a firearm (1898)
-the strong silent type (1905)
-silent films (1914)
-the silent majority (1955)

And these two words together lead folks of a particular age to think of Paul Simon, whose “words like silent raindrops fell” (well, maybe not), in his 1965 hit song, “The Sound of Silence”. I hope you’ll join me in sending good thoughts to Mr. Simon, who just last month, celebrated his 75th birthday. 

And, as always, feel free to speak your mind in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline,, & the OED.


  1. How about "zounds?" which I believe comes from Major Hoople, who may have fostered if not coined "egad" and "harrumph."

    1. Ah dear Fig,
      May your huzzahs outnumber your harrumphs.

  2. One of the greatest songs ever. I salute Mr. Simon.

    Re: "Zounds". I believe that it was originally pronounced "zoonds," and it was short for "by God's wounds" and it was one of those medieval not-quite-blasphemies like "bloody" which was short for "by our Lady". All ways of taking the Lord's (or Lady's) name in vain without quite doing it. Interesting that "zounds" has gone out of style while "bloody" hasn't.

  3. Hi Anne - Indeed. Isn't it a bit frightening that our culture has enough of a fascination with "God's wounds" that we invented this euphemism? One would hope life is more about the Love than the wounds, but there you go.