You are out by the lake shore, you and one other person. You hear the susurrus of the tall grasses, the soughing of the trees in the breeze, the lapping plashing of the little waves, perhaps the whiffle-fluffle of corduroy walking. A dog off leash darts from the boardwalk onto the strand, whereupon a half hundred wings lift fitfully off the soft shore and, feathers flapping frenetically aloft, a flock of waterfowl fly far from the bounding hound. Your companion, jolted from reverie, says “Whut?”
You have just heard a whutter.
Not your companion. Well, perhaps your companion too. But in the main, it’s the birds you heard. A simple flipping and flapping of feathers is a flutter, but when the source is something larger – a big bird, or a bunch of birds (a big bunch of birds or a bunch of big birds or a big bunch of big birds) – the word for it is whutter. Even a murmuration does not murmur; for startling starlings, you are rewarded with whuttering.
Why? Why not. Who knows when this word was first heard, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an 1831 quote from John Wilson in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: “A sound like the whutter of wild-fowl on the feed along a mud-bank.” It has been used since, not often but enough to keep it in the air.
And where did it come from? You know perfectly well: nothing other than the ears of the hearer and a sense for the feel of words. Flutter has been around since English’s earliest days, and the whispering and whistling of “wh” is always available, round, soft, dark, and hollow, heavier and harder to capture than “fl.”
Don’t you love it when words take flight?