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Quotations about Frozen Words

Welcome to my page of quotations about music, sounds, and spoken words that freeze in winter's cold and are not heard until they thaw. I've presented these in chronological order; the story appears to date back to at least the 4th century BCE. Most authors who have expanded upon it do nicely credit the ancient Greek origin.  See also:  Cold Weather, Winter, Snow, Wind, Storytelling, Fairy Tales  —ღ Terri

Quite in place here is the story of Antiphanes, who said humorously that the cold of certain faraway lands is so intense that it freezes the very words we utter, which remain congealed and unheard 'til the heat of summer thaws them; and so the mind of youth is so thoughtless that the wisdom of Plato lies there frozen, as it were, 'til it is thawed by the ripened judgment of mature age. ~Plutarch (46–c.119), "On Making Progress in Virtue," Moralia  [selected from multiple translations —tg]

On Mount Etna the words freeze in your mouth and you may make ice of them. ~Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)  [Notebooks, № 1177 —tg]

The Magnifico Giuliano said, a very excellent story was lately told me by a fellow-Tuscan, a merchant of Lucca, who affirmed it as a positive fact. He once found himself proceeding to the frontier of Poland to sell sables to Muscovite merchants; as he reached the Dnieper, which was all frozen as hard as marble, he found that the suspicious Muscovites on the other bank would approach no nearer than the width of the river. They began to ask prices with a loud voice, but such was the extreme cold that they were not heard, for the words froze in the air. The Poles set about making a great fire in the very middle of the river, which was the limit reached by the warm voices before they were stopped by freezing; and the river was quite solid enough to bear the fire easily. When this was done, the words which had remained frozen for the space of an hour, in due course began to melt and to fall in a murmur, like snow from the mountains in May; and thus they were at once heard very well, although the men had already gone. ~Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), The Book of the Courtier, 1528  [modified —tg]

      When we were at sea, junketting, tippling, discoursing, and telling stories, Pantagruel stood to look out then asked us, Do you hear nothing, gentlemen? Methinks I hear people talking in the air, yet I can see nobody. Hark! We listened with full ears to find if we could hear some sound scattered through the sky; we could not...
      At last we began to fancy that we heard something, or at least that our ears tingled; and the more we listened, the plainer we discerned the voices. This mightily frightened us, since we could see nothing yet heard such various sounds and voices of men, women, children, horses, &c. Panurge cried out, Cods-belly! there is no fooling with the devil; we are all beshit, let's fly and save our bacon.
      The skipper made answer: Be not afraid; we are on the confines of the Frozen Sea, on which, about the beginning of last winter, happened a great and bloody fight between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. Then the words and cries of men and women, the hacking, slashing, and hewing of battle-axes, the shocking, knocking, and jolting of armours and harnesses, and all other martial din and noise, froze in the air; and now, the rigour of winter being over, by the succeeding serenity and warmth of the weather they melt and are heard.
      Here, said Pantagruel, here are some that are not yet thawed. He then threw us on the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, which seemed to us like rough sugar-plums, of many colours, like those used in heraldry; some words gules, some vert, azure, and black; and when we had somewhat warmed them between our hands, they melted like snow and we really heard them, but could not understand them for it was a barbarous gibberish.
      One of them that was pretty big, and having been warmed by Friar John, gave a sound much like that of chestnuts thrown into the fire without being first cut, which made us all start. This was the report of a field-piece in its time, cried Friar John. He threw three or four more handfuls on the deck, among which I perceived some very sharp and terrible words, and bloody words said with a slit weasand, and others not very pleasant to the eye. Some had been all melted together, and we heard strange noises of charging squadrons and the neighing of horses. Then we heard some large ones go off like drums and fifes, and others like clarions and trumpets...
      Believe me, we had very good sport with them. I would fain have saved some merry quips and preserved them in oil, as ice and snow are kept, and between clean straw. But Pantagruel would not let me, saying that ’tis a folly to hoard up what we are never like to want or have always at hand, odd, quaint, merry, and fat words of gules never being scarce among all good and jovial Pantagruelists.
      ~François Rabelais (1494–1553), The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel, 1552  [Text modified. Most of translation by Thomas Urquhart & Peter Antony Motteux. Excerpted from Chapter LV: "How on the high seas Pantagruel heard some unfrozen words" and Chapter LVI: "How among the frozen words Pantagruel found some odd ones." An alternate translation has the Nephelibates as the "Cloud-riders." And, not to worry — I will save the merry quips and preserve them! 'Tis never folly to hoard good words. —tg]

It's not that French which made his giant see
Those uncouth islands where words frozen be,
Till by the thaw next year they're voiced again...
~John Donne (1572–1631)  [Letter to Thomas Coryate (c.1577–1617), being a poetic panegyric on his 1611 travelogue Crudities, this portion of the poem referring to the author Rabelais and his character Pantagruel. Quoted from Poems of John Donne, edited by E. K. Chambers, 1896. —tg]

Where Truth in Person does appear,
Like Words congeal'd in Northern Air...
~Samuel Butler (1612–1680), Hudibras, Part I, Canto I

      Our renowned countryman Sir John Mandeville gives this account of travels to remote lands: "In a storm at latitude 73, we got safe into a creek of Nova Zembla. We landed and made cabins of turf and wood to fence ourselves against the inclemencies of the weather, which was severe beyond imagination. We soon observed that in talking to one another we lost several of our words, and could not hear one another at above two yards distance, and that too when we sat very near the fire. After much perplexity, I found that our words froze in the air before they could reach the ears of the person to whom they were spoken. I was soon confirmed in this conjecture, when, upon the increase of the cold, the whole company grew dumb, or rather deaf; for every man was sensible, as we afterwards found, that he spoke as well as ever; but the sounds no sooner took air, than they were condensed and lost. It was a miserable spectacle to see us nodding and gaping at one another, every man talking, and no man heard.
      We continued three weeks in this dismal plight. At length, upon a turn of wind, the air about us began to thaw. Our cabin was immediately filled with a dry clattering sound, which I afterwards found to be the crackling of consonants that broke above our heads, and were often mixed with a gentle hissing, which I imputed to the letter ‘S.’  I soon after felt a breeze of whispers rushing by my ear; for those being of a soft and gentle substance, immediately liquefied in the warm wind that blew across our cabin. These were soon followed by syllables and short words, and at length by entire sentences, that melted sooner or later, as they were more or less congealed; so that we now heard every thing that had been spoken during the whole three weeks that we had been silent, if I may use that expression.
      My reader will easily imagine how the whole crew was amazed to hear every man talking, and see no man opening his mouth. In the midst of our great surprise, we heard a volley of oaths and curses, as well as the names of several beauties in Wapping, the posthumous groanings and snarls of a bear and a fox, and several other unsavoury sounds that were altogether inarticulate...
      I had fancied that the freezing of sound was necessary to be wrapped up and preserved in breath; but I found my mistake when I also heard the sounds of musical instruments which played at length as the thaw continued. These sounds that melted and became audible furnished us with a great deal of mirth in our return to England..." ~Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. (Joseph Addison, 1672–1719), The Tatler, No. 254, From my own Apartment, Nov. 22, 1710  [modified —tg]

I find that many of my letters to you have been frozen up in their way; the thaw has, I suppose, by this time, set them at liberty, to pursue their journey, and you will receive a glut of them at once. Hudibras alludes, in this verse, "Like words congeal'd in northern air," to a vulgar notion, that, in Greenland, words were frozen in their utterance; and that, upon a thaw, a very mixed conversation was heard in the air, of all those words set at liberty. This conversation was, I presume, too various and extensive to be much attended to: and may not that be the case of half a dozen of my long letters, when you receive them all at once? ~Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, letter to his son, January the 29th, O. S. 1748, London  [a little altered —tg]

      Peace was concluded, and gaining my liberty I left St. Petersburg; many people were sent to Siberia. The winter was then so uncommonly severe all over Europe, that ever since the sun seems to be frost-bitten. At my return to this place, travelling on a narrow lane, I bid the postillion give a signal with his horn, that other travellers might not meet us. He blew with all his might, but he could not make the horn sound...
      After we arrived at the inn without trouble, we refreshed ourselves and my postillion hung his horn near the kitchen fire. Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng!  We looked around, and now found the reason why he had earlier not been able to sound his horn; his tunes were frozen up, and came out now by thawing, so that the honest fellow entertained us for some time with a variety of tunes, without putting his mouth to the horn... At length the thawing entertainment concluded, as I shall this short account of my Russian travels.
      Some travellers are apt to advance more than is perhaps strictly true; if any of the company entertain a doubt of my veracity, I shall only say to such, I pity their want of faith, and must request they will take leave before I begin the second part of my adventures, which are as strictly founded in fact as those I have already related.  ~Rudolf Erich Raspe (1736–1794), The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchausen  [modified —tg]

Alas! if all the reveries, the thinkings of a congregation were suddenly disclosed, — as the frozen words of Sir John Maudeville were suddenly thawed — who would not stand aghast, at his neighbours!— at himself!— who would not find mercy in the severest penance, short of absolute excommunication? ~“The Gatherer,” № VII, New Series, The Literary Panorama, June 1815

The year 1797 was one of the transformations of my life. There are moments when our destiny, whether yielding to society, or obeying nature, or whether it is then beginning to mould us into the form we are to retain, suddenly changes its direction, as a river alters its course. The Essai Historique, of that year, offers a compendium of my existence as poet, moralist, civilian, and politician. It is unnecessary to say that I hoped for great success to this work, as much at least as I could hope for any thing; we authors, little prodigies of a prodigious era, aspire to commune in spirit with future generations; but I think that we do not sufficiently know the dwelling of posterity, and put the wrong address on our communications. When we stiffen in the tomb, death will so unrelentingly freeze our words, written and sung, that they will not melt like the frozen words of Rabelais. ~François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, 1822

SHERIDANIANA; or, The Table Talk and Bon Mots of the late Richard Brinsley Sheridan has brought together, into one volume, the essence of many expensive volumes, and extracted from his parliamentary speeches and other reliques such fragments of wit and eloquence as could, without injury to their lustre, bear, as it were, a separate setting. The Editor has collected many brilliant sayings of this eminent person, which, like the congealed words in Rabelais, were floating about unheard in society. ~Editor's foreword to said volume, 1826  [a little altered —tg]

But thou art chill, Adeline. The words freeze ere they pass my lips, even as thine own; for I never yet could melt the frost-work from thy soul. ~John Roby (1793–1850), "The Ring and the Cliff," Traditions of Lancashire. Second Series, 1831

      Say what a pious and zealous religieux once said to his audience, at the end of a home mission:— "It is alleged that there is a country near the north pole, where it is so cold that words are frozen as they issue from the lips. If two men placed apart at a certain distance attempt to converse, they do not hear one another, for their words freeze in the air. But when spring comes, then their words are heard.
      Brethren, it is cold too and icy round your souls, and our words freeze; but when spring comes, when God's sun shall shine, then these our words will thaw and penetrate into your hearts, even though it be not till the hour of death." Thus, let there be an outburst of love and kindliness towards those who have been edified by the means of grace, and a still larger and more affectionate appeal to those who seemingly have not profited thereby. ~M. L'Abbé Isidore Mullois, Chaplain to the Emperor Napoleon III, "Zeal," The Clergy and the Pulpit, translated by George Percy Badger, 1866

      Samuel Lover has given us a happy conceit of the effect extreme cold has upon words. "You talk here of a sharp wind; but the wind is so sharp there that it cut off our beard and whiskers... And as for frost! I could tell you such incredible things of its intensity; our butter, for instance, was hard as a rock; we were obliged to knock it off with a chisel and hammer, and it was necessary to be careful of your eyes at breakfast; indeed, one of the party did lose the use of his eye from a butter-splinter.
      But the oddest thing of all was to watch two men talking to each other; you could observe the words as they came out of their mouths, suddenly frozen and dropping down into little pellets of ice at their feet, so that, after a long conversation, you might see a man standing up to his knees in his own eloquence."
      We may imagine how these Arctic voyagers in returning to warmer latitudes must have been startled as by the noise of many thunders when these frozen words exploded in volleys about their heads and terrified their ears with the oaths and conversations of many months. ~Rev. Lewis O. Thompson, Nothing Lost; or, The Universe of a Recording Machine, "VII.—Sound," 1877  [a little altered —tg]

      You know what EDGAR ALLAN POE says:— "Science! true daughter of Old TIME thou art! Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes." Well, it seems to me, Father TIME, that your daughter is gradually depriving her sire of certain of his most cherished attributes and most exclusive prerogatives. Space she has practically annihilated; and now she is having a turn at You! Time was when what was past was past, when what Edax Rerum had once devoured knew no resurrection.
      But now? Well, when Science can thus make the vanished Voices of the Past actually audible Voices of the Present, then, in the words of the Hibernian Magistrate in "Killaloe"— "Ye never know what she’ll be up to next." Already she has beaten MUNCHAUSEN on his own ground. Frozen words made audible by thaw? Pooh! What is that compared with the awe-striking possibility of the ipsissima verba of eloquent GLADSTONE, or honey-tongued LEIGHTON, or ventriloquial IRVING, being ground out of this instrument, for the edification, or Edisonification, of dwellers in the tail-end of the Twentieth Century!...
      For example, if this dog Toby barks into this phonograph, his wax-recorded yelp may be useful to frighten burglars in the year 1989. Had ANUBIS done ditto several thousand years ago, we could now compare his yaps with those of the modern Dog of Dogs. ~Punch, or The London Charivari, 1888 December 29th  [modified —tg]

Shouting dies on frozen breath... ~Olive Tilford Dargan (1869–1968), "En Route"

The frost congeals words
Before they are spoken.
It shatters great boughs
Drops them shriven and broken.
~Audrey May Wurdemann, "The Freeze-up," 1927

Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the talking tin foil, for which he borrowed from another inventor the term 'phonograph' ('voice-writer'), dates back to 1877, the year after Alexander Graham Bell, using a word that had been around even longer, patented his first telephone ('distant voice'). There are two ways of seeing this act of invention. In one version, it was the realization of an old dream, answering to ancient susceptibilities. The French photographer Nadar, greeting Edison's invention, said it was as if Rabelais's tale of the sea of frozen words, which released voices into the air when it melted, had passed from the imaginary to the real. ~Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music, 1995

Materialism grounds the mnemonic flight of Pantagruel's linguistic idealism when the pilot of his ship informs him that the sounds they hear are only the frozen noises of a battle fought at sea during the previous winter — verbal ice cubes, so to speak — which are just now thawing out. ~Judith H. Anderson, Words That Matter: Linguistic Perception in Renaissance English, 1996

One moral of the richly polysemic parable is that language, and the truths it conveys, can best be understood when warmed and thawed, either by love, maturity, or intellectual commerce. ~Elizabeth Chesney Zegura, Marguerite de Navarre's Shifting Gaze, 2017

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to Tabatha Yeatts,; Otto Weinreich; William Hansen,, Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature,; W. J. Bernhard Smith; and Google Books for guideposts in this matter. This has been a fun and fascinating treasure hunt, and I couldn't have done it without your clues. —ღ t.g.

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published 2019 Nov 6
revised 2019 Nov 8
last saved 2023 Aug 22