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He threaded through the throng, enthralled by the thrum of a threnody; the thrill of threat throbbed as he thrust himself to a stone’s throw from the throne. The thrum, like a thrombus in his throat, enthused him, and he had no thought of thrift. He threshed through the throng, but as he threw himself thither, throneward, three murtherous thugs, in ruthless wrath, earthed him, thrashed him, then throttled him. And yet he could have done none other: it was all there was – he was thoroughly in thrall.

Ah, those thr words, rustling like heather: the soft, voiceless dental fricative, followed by the roll of the tongue through the liquid /r/. It may even seem to give a frisson, like a light finger up the back of the neck or athwart the throat. That “thr” onset is not utterly distinctively English – Greek certainly has it, as does Icelandic, as do some other languages that have both sounds – but there certainly are many people learning English who have trouble with it.

But not all thr words have the same feel or flavour, the onset notwithstanding. There remain also the qualities of the following vowel and the subsequent consonant, if any. A word like thrip is a swift little flip, and thrift adds just a slight shift; threat and throat both stick dry; throne resonates, but on the cold side; thrum gives a warmer hum, and throng is even stronger; thrill gives a bit of a chill; but none other than thrall has quite the steady chordal effect, as from a band of theorbos or reed and pipe instruments (Corvus Corax, anyone?). It has the steady bright open low back unrounded vowel followed by that lateral liquid with velar coarticulation – the rime of all, ball, call, fall, gall, hall, mall, pall, tall, wall, and y’all. It holds you and keeps you.

And a thrall is kept – kept in thrall. What, exactly, is a thrall? Well, we know what enthralled is used to mean: “fascinated, entranced, captivated”. Of those three, “captivated” is most directly accurate to origins, for a thrall was first of all a slave, a prisoner, one in bondage: the word comes from a Scandinavian root for servitude or drudgery (and will you now turn up your collar and pull your lapels together against that chill wind of the north?). From that, thrall came also to mean the condition of bondage or slavery itself.

But, perhaps thanks to the taste of thrill, and to an ethos where love was equated to a sort of ecstatic slavery (as in Shakespeare, for instance Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape”), enthralled has taken on a sense of willing captivation, of an enjoyment beyond enjoyment. And thrall likewise may be a thrill that cometh before a fall, but a thrill it often is, or even something more… like the sound of a pipe, leading you onward; all you can think or feel is that you must follow…

Thanks to Laurence Cooper for suggesting thrall.