Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Whisperer campaign

My friend Vicki Croke, who writes about animals, was frustrated to find that online dictionaries weren’t giving her a relevant definition for whisperer. "M-W tells me it means rumormonger," she e-mailed, and indeed, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (like several others I consulted) gives only the literal sense (“one that whispers”) and the 16th-century sense “rumormonger.”

What about horse whisperer -- widely known since the 1995 novel “The Horse Whisperer” and the 1998 movie based on it? Lexicographers are naturally cautious about admitting senses that may be fleeting fashions, but horse whisperer has not only stuck with us, it has generated dozens of variations: Dog whisperer, baby whisperer, wood whisperer, and so on.

And Vicki isn’t the only reader looking for this general sense in the dictionary. M-W’s site asks readers to say where they heard a term or why they’re looking it up. The responses under whisperer: "TV show called dog whisperer."  "I was looking for a definition that could make horse whisperer make sense." "The true story of the American man who became known as the Horse Whisperer."

So I asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass., when we could expect the new whisperer to show up in that dictionary. It's already in the Unabridged online, he replied: Sense 2 is "a horse trainer who soothes unmanageable mounts by whispering to them."

My old Webster’s 2nd Unabridged (1959 printing) has it too, with a slightly more skeptical gloss: "One supposed to manage horses by whispering." But here's the kicker: horse whisperer is actually two centuries old. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it "an appellation for certain celebrated horse-breakers, said to have obtained obedience by whispering to the horses," and provides an 1810 quote from the Statistical Survey of the County of Cork:
He was an awkward, ignorant rustic ..., his name James Sullivan, but better known by the appellation of the whisperer, … from a vulgar notion of his being able to communicate to the animal what he wished, by means of a whisper.
And yes, Merriam-Webster is on the case, says Sokolowski. Their citation file -- showing whisperer "preceded by cow, (fashion) model, ghost, fish, beast, wolf -- pretty much confirms that anything can modify whisperer to have the meaning 'one who is able to calm, coach, or control.' The culture absorbed horse whisperer and then began to apply the concept more broadly -- a very typical pattern."

These non-horse whisperer examples, however, come mostly from the past decade, he says -- too recently to make it into the 11th Collegiate Dictionary. But "we may well see this new sense in the next Collegiate." And, presumably, in other abridged dictionaries, wherever you like to consult them.


Stan said...

Collins English Dictionary online has this whisperer at sense 2 (of 2): "a person who is able to tame or control animals, esp by talking to them in gentle tones ⇒ 'a horse whisperer'".

Yesterday I came across turkey whisperer in the description of this short and charming video.

Frank Little said...

OED cites the year 1810 for "an appellation for certain horse-breakers, said to have obtained obedience by whispering to the horses"!

AnonPassant said...

So someone who controls or counsels a whisperer would be a whisperer whisperer.