stertor, stertorous

He got on the elevator just before the doors closed, that guy. Him again. An inch or two taller than me and probably 1.4 times my weight. A bit socially odd and hard to read; always seems like something is nettling him a bit.

It’s an elevator ride. Twenty-something floors. Stare at the door, the floor. Sometimes people talk. Fortunately not this time. But as soon as he exited the elevator, five floors before my floor, I pulled out my phone and made a note:


His most salient characteristic, you see, is that his breathing is very audible. Very. With occasional mouth noise, but mostly through the nose.

Usually if I’m in the elevator with someone who makes that kind of noise breathing, that someone is a dog. Probably a little bulldog.

More often when you hear a person breathing stertorously, you’re in their bedroom. Or near them on a bus or airplane. Or in church. Or maybe a meeting at work.

Stertor is loud breathing, one could almost even say stentorian breathing. Constricted breathing. Breathing as of one asleep. In particular, breathing like snoring, although it can be gentle snoring. Stertorous is the adjective. Of course.

The word stertorous does not have a gentle sound to it, does it? It sounds strained, terse, tense, tortured perhaps. There may be a stutter, but a restricted one, ingressive.

Here, do this: whisper “stertorous” as you inhale. Presto, stertor. Even better, move your tongue back a bit in your mouth, as though you’re about to clear your throat, and do the same thing again. Yeah. Like that. That’s some serious stertor. Not so much sonority as snority. Or just snorty.

That works particularly well if you’re a typical North American or someone else who uses the humped-up-tongue /r/. In that case, both syllables of stertor have no real vowels; the peak of each is a syllabic /r/: [stɹ̩ɾɹ̩]. (Doesn’t that transcription look like it could be a visual representation of snoring?)

The word stertor comes straight from Latin, of course. The Latin noun is formed from the verb stertere ‘snore’. That happens to be an anagram of resetter, as in resetting your sleep or your alarm, but I doubt the ancient Romans foresaw that fact. But of course stertorous is an anagram of sot rouster and rests or out and torture SOS and rots so true and to trousers and…

Well, anyway. It may be a sound often associated with sleep or coma on the part of the person (or dog) making it, but for those of us hearing it at close range, it is rarely ours to rest.

3 responses to “stertor, stertorous

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    Stertorous. Even if I whisper the word it retains its chilly character. Like a bad omen. No. Cannot sleep well tonight.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M. @VolcadoDePila ________________________________

  2. Perhaps the stertorous fellow ‘rose to URST (University, Rank, Salary, and Tenure or Unresolved Sexual Tension)’; in either case he might retort, “Resort to us!”

  3. Such a great word–and I could have used it many times over the years. Love how you wove your story out of this annoying sound.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s