This week’s word is sultry. I wish I could say it’s because the weather here has been sultry, but sadly that hasn’t been the case – plenty of rain showers in my part of the world. However we’re hoping to explore the coast of West Cork soon and I may stumble on some sultriness then.
I’ll admit, I thought sultry only applied to femmes fatale in 1940 film noir movies, but no, it started in the weather forecasts and I’m convinced we need to revive its use there. A forecast would be much more fun if the map had sultry listed beside it instead of humid.
Sultry arrived in English in the late 1500s to describe humid, hot, moist weather. It came from an even earlier word, swelter, which described people who fainted with heat in the 1400s. Swelter had Old English roots in sweltan (to die) which shared roots with similar word in Old Saxon (sweltan) and Old Norse (svelta) which also described dying or being put to death. It is possible that these were linked to the idea of burning up with fevers. In a world without many treatments for infections, the heat of a fever was often fatal and terrifying for victims.
This makes me think that describing weather as sultry wasn’t a positive thing. Those early English speakers weren’t fond of overly hot weather. It wasn’t until the 1700s that sultry adopted a new meaning – the idea of heated lust and it was the 1940s (as I’d assumed) when sultry was first used to describe sensual, attractive women.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
p.s. The low-key ebook launch of “Words The Sea Gave Us” is clicking away in the background while we try to correct the printing glitch with the paperback. I’ll let you know as soon as that’s fixed. However two lovely things happened this week in the meantime. 1) several etymology/nautical experts I’d approached for support said yes (one really surprised me, but I’m keeping it secret for the moment) and 2) I spotted that the ebook is listed as Number One in the Ship History category on Amazon.com – I’m incredibly pleased with that.