Susie Dent: How 'fremescence' and 'thunderpeals' are rising in our anxious society once again

“Confused tremor and fremescence; waxing into thunderpeals, of Fury stirred on by Fear.” In his history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle charted the build-up of frustration and anxiety that was to eventually erupt inexorably.

The word 'disaster' stems from the Latin for star, with an unlucky alignment of the constellations blamed for some major misfortunes (Picture: Mariana Suarez/AFP via Getty Images)
The word 'disaster' stems from the Latin for star, with an unlucky alignment of the constellations blamed for some major misfortunes (Picture: Mariana Suarez/AFP via Getty Images)

He was the first to give us the term “fremescence”, a description of “an incipient roaring”. In other words, this was a growing sense of dissatisfaction that could only go one way.

Some of us may be aware of a similarly low roar now, as we approach the autumn with dread over rising prices, continuing war on our doorsteps, and the unknown quantity of a new Prime Minister to navigate us (or not) through it all.

If ever we needed to borrow from the lexicon of unease, it’s probably now.

Anxiety is well catered for in the historical dictionary. The story of that word itself, from the Latin angere, to “strangle”, gives us a sense of the chokehold that worry can bring.

Before “unease” we had “disease”, originally an absence of comfort (a “dis-ease”) before settling on the causes of such disturbances. Those causes were often viewed as outside human control.

The stars in particular were believed to exert enormous influence over human affairs and our feelings. The word “disaster”, close to a lot of our lips at the moment, revolves around the Latin aster, “star”, for a truly calamitous event was thought to come from an unlucky alignment of the constellations. Similarly, “influenza”, from the Italian for “influence”, was viewed as the direct result of astral influence.

No one needs to look to the stars to find the causes of collective unease right now. The catalysts for societal jitters have of course varied widely over the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the authorities were particularly eager to identify those prone to anxiety, such as witches, or women with a “wandering” uterus thought susceptible to bouts of hysteria (from the Greek hystera, “womb”).

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In the 19th century, among the biggest catalysts of widespread anxiety was the fear of being buried alive, thanks to shaky diagnostics and in-fighting between medics and undertakers as to who had the authority to certify death.

Various cures for such predicaments were experimented with, from supplying coffins with bells, to coaxing the recalcitrant uterus back into normal position by wafting unpleasant smells near the vagina. You’d think that financial support from a whiffling government might seem a little less onerous.

There is of course a cuddlier side to anxiety, linguistically at least, as anyone who has the screaming abdabs or heebie-jeebies will agree. A “jubbity”, in Yorkshire dialect, is a misfortune or vexatious experience, as in “she’s had some jubbities in her life”.

To have a jittery kind of melancholy, meanwhile, or a sense of impending doom – as of a Sunday evening or the day your energy bill is due – was disarmingly known in the 17th century as the “mubble fubbles”.

Having the morbs’, Victorian style, was to sit under a cloud of despondency – an expression that sits nicely alongside another, shoulder-shrugging offering of the time, “Damfino”, short for “damned if I know”.

For acuter anxiety however, because damned if any of us know how to slam the brakes on the train hurtling towards us at the moment, there are familiar words such as “funked” and “perturbed”, and those less travelled, like “bumbazed”, “bogfoundered”, and “forstraught”.

For an expression of utter befuddlement and shock, there is the 19th-century dialect term “blutterbunged”.

In Old English, the act of lying awake and contemplating the enormity of life and its worries was known as “uhtcearu”, the “sorrow before dawn”. A now-lost Irish equivalent is “iarmhaireacht”, exquisitely described by the writer Manchán Magan as “the loneliness you feel at cockcrow, when you are the only person awake and experience that existential pang of disconnection, of not belonging”.

Such feeling is often followed up by “matutolypea”, a morning irritability when we can just about manage to trampoose to the kettle but woe betide anyone who dares speak to us.

The fact that our language can provide us with a long trail of words with which to express our unease may offer some consolation, if little remedy.

If you were to ask the Romans, one strategy for a dissatisfied audience was “exsibilation”, the act of hissing a poor performer off the stage. But while poor performers abound, we’d need a lot of hissing to get anywhere.

And all the while that slow-building roar is getting a little louder. Listen out for “brontide”, the low, muffled sound of distant thunder. How long before Fury stirred on by Fear takes over once again?

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.


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