chowter, chunter

Life can sometimes be kinda thick and chunky. Things don’t always go smoothly. And perhaps we’ll protest that we don’t like bringing it up, but quite often we do seem to like chewing on these tough little bits half-quietly for quite a while. Maybe not all of us, but not none of us, that’s for sure, if you know what I mean. When our discontents are our dish contents, we make a fine chowder of chowtering. And if we can’t keep it down, I won’t say we chunder (look, we’re not in Australia here, as the typical weather ought to tell you), but we sure enough do chunter.

These are both verbs, chowter and chunter, and they’re pretty similar. I’m tempted to think that chowter is a misreading of someone’s sloppy handwriting for chunter, because it was only documented briefly in the early 1700s, and you know how people were at that time, everything in mansucript and don’t bother saying that their handwriting was all perfectly schooled if you haven’t had a nice look at it for yourself. Anyway, Doctor Johnson included it in his dictionary with the charming definition “To grumble or mutter like a froward child” (who even uses froward anymore? so Shakespearean).

You know exactly what that means. The husband who hangs back from his wife in the shop saying sotto voce to the dust bunnies, “If you were going to say we can’t afford it, why did you take me here to look at it in the first place?” The dog owner who pass-aggs the pooch with “Sure, no problem, I just love getting dressed at this hour to take you out to redecorate the streetscape like you didn’t want to do when I was perfectly ready and dressed and not lying in bed reading the most interesting chapter of the book.” The reader who gestures at the website and says  “OK, move on, I get your point, I got it ages ago, come on.”

So chunter means the same thing as chowter? Nearly. The Oxford English Dictionary’s not-quite-so-cute definition of chunter reads “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain. Also in extended use.” Well, it sure as heck is in extended use around where I live nine months of the year, thanks to our weather, which is not only disgusting but unpredictable for the duration of hockey season, like there’s anything of that worth staying inside for. But that’s not what they mean, of course; they mean like if I were to say “His car chuntered down the uneven pavement” or “My fridge is chuntering in its late-night way.”

And where does this word chunter come from? “Apparently of imitative formation,” Oxford says, without so much as hinting how it is that grumbling sounds to any normal person like “chunter.” When I was a kid, we tended to imitate it with “ritz-a-frickin” or “skrtzifrtz” or similar closed-up collections of retroflexes and fricatives. “Chunter” seems rather crisp and open.

Well, whatever. People just make up words because somehow in their world they think it sounds right and other people for their own strange reasons hang onto these words or don’t. I mean, mutter, grumble, murmur, kvetch, how many words do we need for this crap? Maybe if the weather were better in England (and Canada) we wouldn’t have so many words for expressing annoyance. OK, yeah, it was really nice today for a switch, but I’m sure that it’ll pass through spring in three days and then make the rest of the leap from cold and wet to sweltering and muggy. But you know me, I don’t like to complain.

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