Latin Maxims I
Latin Maxims II
Latin Maxims III
Latin Maxims IV
Cowell's Interpreter I
Cowell's Interpreter II
Feal and Divot I
Feal and Divot II
Peddlers and Others I
Peddlers and Others II
Fine and Dandy I
Fine and Dandy II
Folling, Bummers, et al.
Frowzled and Frowsy
Hypergamy et al.
Explode and Imposition
Pixie and Pixilated
Cornage and Culliage
Restringe and Laxative
Miso- (Hatred of)
Nictitate II (Nabokov)
The Kiss of Peace
Loose Ends (on Kissing)
Prink and Quiz
Words for Intoxication
Piffle and Witter
Harangue et al.
Bill Long 4/19/06
We finally encounter a medical term which has successfully been wrested from the doctors by the literary establishment. It is not as if the doctors have given up the term; it is simply that many, many writers have used it in their work. This essay explores the world not only of the stertor but the way that the adjective stertorous (snoring) has been incorporated into literary works.
Let's begin with a basic definition. The word stertor comes from the Latin verb "stertere," which means "to snore," and is defined as "A heavy snoring sound which accompanies inspiration in certain diseases." This early 20th century definition, from the Century, uses "inspiration" in the classic sense of breathing. It has nothing to do with "being inspired," as we would say today. The first attestation of stertor in English is from 1804: "A profound sleep, attended with a stertor resembling that of apoplexy." Or, from a medical treatise in 1845: "The delirium passed into complete coma, with dilated pupils and stertor."
But it is as an adjective that our word has taken wing. Though the medical attestations again go back to the early 19th century, by mid-century the literary folks had picked up on the term. At first the word appeared in combination with "breathing," so that the phrase stertorous breathing became rather common. A mid-19th century British author who was completely overshadowed by Charles Dickens, and whose literary merit is still subject to debate, was Charles Reade. In his 1863 work Hard Cash appears this line: "The fixed eye and terrible stertorous breathing, on the one hand, and the promise of relief on the other.." Actually, Reade used this phrase several times in his works--a Google search will bring them up, if you are interested.
The phrase sterterous breathing has been picked up by English-language authors since Reade. Indeed, a Google search revealed more than 13,000 references to stertorous breathing, even though several of them are medical references. From an Annie Proulx short story appearing in the Atlantic in 1997 we have: "In the cinder-block motel room he set the alarm, but his own stertorous breathing woke him before it rang." Or, from a review of the pianist Dezso Ranki's work in 2000: "As pianist Dezso Ranki pounds and weaves at the keys, his breathing is at times so stertorous one could swear that someone in the audience is snoring." And, just to complete the references to the stars in the literary firmament who have made stertorous breathing their friend we have the following:
"There was no need to think them dead, for their stertorous breathing and the acrid smell of laudanum in the room left no doubt as to their condition" (Dracula, by Bram Stoker).
"He listened in the passage, and could hear hard stertorous breathing" (Middlemarch, by George Eliot).
"The morning wore on, and the old man's breathing grew stertorous" (Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham).
Medical usage of the term is still prevalent. In an article entitled "Fatal Envenomation by Jellyfish causing Irukandji Syndrome," Peter J. Fenner and John C. Hadok give us the story of a man who was fatally bitten by a jellyfish [By the way, for those who are interested, the Irukandji Syndrome was named in 1952; it is a set of severe symptoms which occur about 30 minutes after some jellyfish stings]. In any case, the medical record of this unfortunate man describes how within three hours after a jellyfish bite he "was sweating, salivating profusely, had a mild epistaxis, stertorous breathing and erythematous flushing of the face, neck and anterior chest."
It is surprising to me how ill-attested epistaxis (the technical word for "nose bleeds") is in our "big" dictionaries. The Century doesn't have it at all, and the OED only has two attestations--from 1793 and 1866. "The blood, discharged by Epistaxis," and "Epistaxis is the most common form of hemorrhage." The word is from the Greek and combines the preposition "epi," meaning "upon" and "stazein," which means "to let fall in drops." But the word must have had a 20th century birth/rebirth in medical literature because there are more than 200,000 appearances of it in a Google search. A typical appearance is from a pediatric otolarygnology page. Advice for prevention of epistaxis: "At bedtime, place a thin coating of Vaseline, polysporin or bacitracin inside of nose on each side of septum (middle divider)." Now you not only know what epistaxis means; you know also what the septum is (And, by the way, the grooved channel between the septum and upper lip is called the philtrum).
We also see that the poor man suffered from "erythematous flushing of the face." We know that erythematous is related to erythema, which is "a superficial inflammation of the skin, showing itself chiefly in rose-coloured patches." A quotation from 1940 uses a similar word but introduces one other, which is too good to lose. "Other emissivities such as an erythemal emissivity might be defined.." An emissivity is, of course, something that is sent out or emitted, but I don't believe I have ever seen that word before today.
Concluding with Stertorous Sleep
Much less frequent than stertorous breathing is the appearance of stertorous sleep. Authors such as Booth Tarkington and John Galsworthy used the phrase. "There was nothing to be done. She undressed, and turned out the light. He was in a stertorous sleep." Or, "muffling their faces as best they can from the gale, and envying their companions, sunk deep in stertorous sleep after their Christmas night's debauch..."
By paying moderate attention to our words, then, we can claim another building block on the way to eloquent writing and communication.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long