Daily Archives: September 28, 2010


The other day, Rob Tilley mentioned reading, in Len Deighton’s 1962 novel The IPCRESS File, the following sentence: “I listened to the ululating wail and horrisonous mewl, to the bleating, braying, yelping howl, and found it as difficult to listen to as it was to label.”

Well, he seems to have managed to label it nonetheless… But the difficulty evidently led him to seek the help of Roget’s International Thesaurus, in section 410 of which (“[Harsh or High Sounds.] Stridor.”) may be found both horrisonous and ululation, and in section 412 of which (“[Animal Sounds.] Ululation.”) may be found wail, mewl, bleat, bray, yelp, and howl.

All of which are, indeed, horrisonous, and may in fact (especially in concert) give rise to horripilation, that horrified rippling (or sometimes of elation) of your hair. The horri is the same in both, and the same as in horror, horrible, horrifying, and horrid too – and the hor in abhor. It comes from Latin horrere, verb, “bristle, shiver”. And the sonous in horrisonous? Well, what do you think? You should have figured it out by now… It’s from Latin sonare, verb, “sound”.

And how does horrisonous sound? Well, its rhythm is the same as “oh, resinous” or “original”: stress on the second syllable. The i is said like the i in is and it and so on; according to Oxford, the s is voiceless, though I suspect that those rare few who actually say this word may on occasion voice it – I’m not sure which is the less pleasant sound in that place: a hiss or a buzz.

Anyway, the word is likely to horrify the eyes on first contact, with its crazing assembly of letters, the rri, the o o and o and the s and s, the n here and u nearby (move a letter and you can make snoous or sonuos, either of which is the same rotated 180 degrees), and that electric-chair h at the head, signifying heavy breathing like some hidden monster that makes its little purr /r/ and a couple of hisses /s/ before it lets loose with a wail, mewl, bleat, bray, yelp, or howl, or perhaps all of them together. And what could we name such an awful monster? Hmmm… thesaurus suggests itself… IPCRESS wouldn’t be too bad either.