Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 18, 2021

It’s Sultry

In North America, it’s midsummer: the dog days. Heat and humidity … except here in the American southwest, where it’s dry beyond imagining. Farmers in California’s Central Valley, who supply some significant portion of the world’s produce, are making desperate decisions about how to use a diminishing supply of water. If the price of almonds, pistachios, tomatoes suddenly skyrocket, don’t blame the famers: They have no water.

Seasonal “monsoon” thunderstorms are sweeping across eastern Arizona and eastern New Mexico. If it doesn’t rain now, they won’t see precipitation again until midwinter brings a minimal amount of snow.

2,000 miles to the east of me, in the middle of the continent, where I grew up, it’s “sultry.”

“Sultry” is an interesting word.

It means “hot and humid.”

“Sultry” first shows up in English in the middle of the 1500s. It’s probably derived from an ancient word, sweltan, which has been with us since it appeared in one of the earliest versions of ancient Germanic, Gothic.

From sweltan, we have “swelter.” Originally, the word sweltan meant “to perish.”

The earliest recorded instance of the word in English is in good ol’ Beowulf, where it appears several times.

The best instance in Beowulf is at the end of the terrific battle that defines all conflict between man and the forces of the unknown: Beowulf is in the lair of the dragon, in utter darkness, illuminated only by the dragon’s fiery breath. Dragon-fire burns through Beowulf’s armor, while the dragon sinks its teeth into him. Burned and bitten, the mighty warrior strikes the dragon again and again, his massive sword (which only he could wield) glancing off the dragon’s scales.

Beowulf’s legendary sword, Naegling, which had never failed, shatters from the sheer force of the king’s hands as he pierces the dragon’s scales (in Old English, the dragon is a “wurm” as well as “draca“). The worm has received its death wound, and there’s blood everywhere. Beowulf, too, is at the point of death from uncountable injuries, and will not survive the conflict. This is the end of Beowulf’s epic.

The dragon (familiar as Smaug to Tolkien fans) has been terrorizing the kingdom, piling up a hoard of gold in his lair. Beowulf, the king, knows he must go and kill this dragon that’s terrorizing his realm, even though he (correctly) foresees it’s his fate to die in the attempt.

The passage below ends with the line containing today’s word: “he morthre swealt.” Literally, something like, “It through murder perished,” which our translator, Heaney, has as “Had been mowed down.” In the language of the time, “murdered” did not carry our contemporary implied judgment of guilt or wrongdoing: it meant simply “killed.”

I’ll let Seamus Heaney translate, since he won the Nobel prize, and did an admirable job with the epic.

“… Already the blade

of the old king’s sharp killing-sword

had done its worst: the one who had for long

minded the hoard, hovering over gold,

unleashing fire, surging forth

midnight after midnight, had been mowed down.”

A good word, “sultry.” Here, under western skies, we’re sweltering.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Citation from Beowulf, a New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000, copyright Seamus Heaney. Also consulted, Oxford English Dictionary Compact Edition, Oxford University Press, 1971. Gloss on “murdered” courtesy E. Talbot Donaldson, 1974, then visiting professor emeritus at University of Michigan, recorded during his lecture in my worn copy of Beowulf. His translation is Beowulf, A Prose Translation, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2002, 1975.


Responses

  1. As a former midwesterner, I know ‘sultry.’ That was the word of the season for summer. Memory’s a fragile thing, of course, but I don’t remember being introduced to ‘sweltering’ until I moved to Texas. Now, that’s the descriptor I most often hear, and I can’t remember the last time I heard ‘sultry.’

    Of course, the first thing that came to mind when I saw your title had nothing to do with weather. Instead, it evoked certain actresses from the 1940s and 1950s: Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Hedy Lamarr. Even though many actresses and social media ‘influencers’ of today are described as ‘hot,’ most don’t come close to qualifying for ‘sultry.’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interestingly, I sorta mocked my longtime buddy as several of us exchanged a series of emails that evolved into a blog post on this subject for mentioning a female celebrity (a generation after Mss. Hayworth, Lake, etc.) as sultry. Typical male attitude, I figured. You’ve now redeemed him.
      I have never researched this, but it’s my understanding that residential air conditioning was first introduced in your south Texas area, or no one would ever be able to live there. “Sweltering,” indeed.
      This all started because my paternal grandfather, who’s occasionally in posts as a master carpenter, a man of few but well chosen words, would pause on a summer day and say, “It’s sultry.” I can still hear his voice.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You may be the first person ever to connect Beowulf to the American Southwest. As the connection includes etymology, I find it especially welcome. Pursuing your lead, I noticed in the American Heritage Dictionary that sultry comes from the now-obsolete verb sulter, which has gotten replaced by the similar swelter. Sometimes we tolerate multiple forms of a word, for example tiny and teeny, while in other instances one form wins out over the other(s). In the case of Beowulf and the dragon, neither won out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In the Anglo-Saxon ethos, Beowulf was the winner. He had a duty, fulfilled it, despite the cost.
      I appreciate your diligence in pursuing “sultry.” Language is endlessly messy, and we wade in with swords drawn, surrounded by dragon fire, hoping to emerge victorious!
      Thanks for the many, many spectacular flowers and plants, which I enjoy seeing every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. Words matter. ‘Wet bulb’ might be its contemporary partner in crime. My recently learned word(s) for the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a notorious gadfly on this blog and longtime Beowulf antagonist, I must confess that this post must surely be a first in the history of English literature: Beowulf in Texas?! Extraordinaire!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beowulf is the avatar of us all.
      It’s unlikely that the bards who composed it had heard “Iliad,” although they probably knew a version of it.
      Wherever there is something that must be done, we pick up the sword that has never been broken, and break it on the dragon’s scales.
      The poem was written down in the Christian era, but the story clearly hails from a time long before, when only duty and fate ruled us.
      Hands on the sword, into the dark, where fire and death await.
      Plus, some pretty good poetry.

      Liked by 1 person


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