We’re coming around to the most sultry part of the summer, when the cicadas buzz like oven timers. Many is the person who wants to stretch out panting like a dog in front of a fan. Certainly those who are well insulated may wish they were svelter. As the Lovin’ Spoonful sang in “Summer in the City,” “All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.” For, as Noel Coward put it in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “the sun is much too sultry and we must avoid its ultry-violet rays.” (Unless, of course, one is a mad dog or an Englishman.)
Oh, summertime, and the livin’ ain’t easy. Certainly not easy as pie, unless it’s Don McLean’s “American Pie”: “Helter skelter in the summer swelter.” Ah, now there’s the word for it: swelter. In this welter of swells sweatily waltzing the sun-walled sidewalks, every soul wilting, as wet as if wearing a sweater, what other word could carry not just the solar radiation (infrared!) but the humidity, the heat coming up as well as down, maybe an egg hissing as it fries on the sidewalk, and the sense of melting away unto death? It hisses, it swells, finally it burns off.
And, after all, swelter is related not just to sultry (via sweltery, at least as far as anyone can tell) but to death too: its origin is in the verb swelt, which meant first “die” and subsequently just slightly more figurative uses: “faint away”, “be overpowered by heat.” (Although perishing of heat may make you more svelte, svelte comes from Latin ex “out” and vellere “pluck”.)
But of course many of us are not so oppressed now. We have air conditioning; we may retreat, we lucky ones, as William Vaughn Moody put it in “Gloucester Moors”:
To be out of the moiling street
With its swelter and its sin!
Who has given to me this sweet,
And given my brother dust to eat?
And when will his wage come in?
Swelter: roll the word on your tongue, verb or noun, and enjoy it. It’s a well-turned word. You need but taste it; you are not committed to it if you have it easy, if you have A/C.
There is cash to purse and spend,
There are wives to be embraced
Moody, by the way, had a larger view in his poem than some hedonism – no thelemite, he. He wanted to know where this ship of a planet we are on is heading. And as we sit in our cool buildings and look at the swelter outside, we ought also to ask:
shall a haggard ruthless few
Warp her over and bring her to,
While the many broken souls of men
Fester down in the slaver’s pen,
And nothing to say or do?
And are we festering… or haggard and ruthless?