Know Your Words

Of Noise and Seasickness

Are_Enchanted_with_the_Delightful_Prospect_Off_the_BarAt the beginning of his essay “On Noise,” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer writes:

The super abundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and rumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and course quality.

Wow. Dumb people aren’t bothered by noise because their brain tissue is rough and course. Just wow. How is this dude a renowned philosopher? And while we’re asking questions, what is noise anyway? It seems to be one of those words that is difficult to define, yet something we “know” when we hear it.

This hasn’t stopped lexicographers from trying, though. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines noise as:

1) Loud outcry, clamor, or shouting; din or disturbance made by one or more persons
2) Common talk, rumor, report; evil report, slander, scandal, etc. (Obsolete)
3) A loud or harsh sound of any kind; a din
4) A sound which is not remarkably loud
5) An agreeable or melodious sound. (Now rare)
6) To make an outcry, to talk much or loudly about a particular thing.

Clearly, not all of these definitions1 (e.g., 2, 4, 5, and 6) apply to the way Schopenhauer uses the word noise in the excerpt above. This makes sense, however, as there is more than one kind of noise. It’s also not surprising (and perhaps a good example of how dictionary makers “borrow” from one another), that many of the other dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the exact same definitions of noise, save for the addition of  engineering’s use of noise to refer to any interference that reduces the clarity or quality of a signal.

That said, as if to reduce the “noise” and/or enhance the clarity of the word’s definition between its covers,  the first definition for noise in the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) reads, “A sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct, or disagreeable.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) takes a similar approach and bolsters its entry for noise with a sense that reads, “sound: especially one that lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant.”

I get the feeling that ol’ Schopenhauer would approve.

And speaking of music, I thought it’d be worthwhile to see what my music dictionaries would have to say about noise, so I  hastily opened their covers, some of which uttered an audible crack.  Much to my dismay, of the five on the shelf only two — the Lectionary2 of Music (Slonimsky) and the Music Theory Dictionary (Lee) — had anything to say on the matter. The former defines noise as:

A collection of tonally unrelated simultaneous sounds of different frequencies and intensities, meaningless to musical or even unmusical ears…. White noise is an integral assembly of sounds of various frequencies.

Putting aside the phrase “unmusical ears,” the Music Theory Dictionary cranks it up to 11 and, in addition to offering an (acoustical) definition of noise, “A sound with partials of irregular proportion,” [What? – Ed.] provides a nice definition of what’s commonly known as “experimental” or “noise” music:

The attempt to increase the material of music by including noises to reflect the complexity of modern life. Accomplished through the use of six families of noises to be reproduced mechanically, i.e. (1) booms, thunderclaps, explosions, etc. (2) whistles, hisses, etc. (3) whispers, murmurs, etc. (4) screams, screeches, etc. (5) noises obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc. and (6) voices of animals and men, shouts, shrieks, groans, etc.

Given his displeasure at hearing “hammering” in his vicinity, it’s safe to say Schopenhauer wouldn’t care for the noise music and its sounds “obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc.” I’m also willing to bet that our esteemed philosopher wouldn’t care much for the sounds at the root of the word’s etymology. I know I wouldn’t. I can’t take hearing them now.

If what I just wrote isn’t clear, just listen …

According to Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the word noise was adopted by Middle English speakers from Old French noise, meaning noisy, strife, din, which is derived from Latin nausea and the noise “made by a ship full of [seasick] passengers groaning and vomiting during bad weather.”2

Eww. Etymology is gross.



  1. Some of these definitions (2 and 6) pertain to gossiping or “raising a stink” about a particular issue in the news that “sticks in your craw.” One (4) pertains to seemingly any noise at all that isn’t music, as in “My Rice Krispies make noise when I pour milk over them,” and the last (5) seems to reference the idea of “making a joyful noise.”
  2. Is “Lectionary” a word? I can tell you the spell check in the old Word Press ain’t too keen on it. Thus, I looked it up. The short answer is yes, it is. A lectionary is “a book or a list of lections for reading in a divine service.” That seems like a rather haughty title to give your book, but … you know … to each his own I guess. So what’s a lection then? Lection refers to “a version of a passage in a particular copy or edition of a text; a variant reading” or, in other words, a selection from a larger passage. Now we know.