Cliffhanger, Pregnant.

Kathryn Schulz has an essay in the New Yorker (archived) on the uses of suspense as a fundamental technique of storytelling; it starts with the obligatory hook from the author’s own life (“Awaiting the birth of a child is a very strange experience”), then widens out:

But the final weeks of pregnancy, with all the uncertainty and anticipation that they entail, also foster a very specific emotional state, one produced only by the experience of waiting, for an indeterminate amount of time, for something momentous to happen. And so lately I have been thinking, in the context of life, about something I have thought about for years in the context of literature: the structure, function, and strange pleasures of suspense.

It’s well worth reading, and I hope the corrections I’m about to make won’t put anyone off it — as usual, these linguistic misunderstandings are the fault of the educational system, not of the individual author. But since part of the mission of this blog is to educate people about this sort of thing, I’m going to point out a couple of blunders. First we get this:

The most extreme version of this suspense-building strategy does not merely slow time down but effectively stops it, by yanking the reader away from the action just as it reaches its apex. This is the plot device known as the cliffhanger, a word whose putative origins lie not in pulp fiction but in a lesser-known Thomas Hardy novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes.” In the relevant scene, a man named Henry Knight is strolling with his love interest along the cliffs of Cornwall when his hat blows off. He chases after it, one thing leads to another, and soon he is dangling from a sheer wall of rock, nothing beneath him but six hundred feet of air terminating in the fanged and foaming surface of the ocean.

No. I’m sure she was pleased to run across somebody actually hanging from a cliff in Hardy, but that is not the origin of the word, about which the OED says (entry revised 2016):

Originally U.S.

1. A tense or dramatic ending to an episode of a series of films, television programmes, books, etc., which leaves the audience in suspense and anxious to discover what will happen next; (also) a work or series which regularly uses or is characterized by such endings.
Originally with reference to radio and film serials which ended episodes with their protagonists literally hanging from cliffs, or in similarly dangerous situations.

1931 Probabilities are a serial based on the life of Buffalo Bill and a treasure island thriller. Henry McRae, in charge of the cliff hangers, is searching for story material.
Variety 14 January 22/5

Hardy is neither here nor there, and if it turns out that there is a character hanging from a cliff in an Alexandrian romance of the third century BC, that too would be neither here nor there. Words, like books, habent sua fata, and to find out about those fates, we don’t rummage through novels hoping to find a truffle, we go to the people whose job it is to tell us such things, in this case the learned folks at the OED.

Later on Schulz writes:

Speaking of birth: consider the phrase “a pregnant pause.” You might imagine that the idiom was derived from the condition—that we call such a pause pregnant because it is bulging with something important that is about to happen. But that is backward. In a bit of linguistic history that my partner and I found pleasing when we stumbled across it in the months before her due date, “pregnant” meant “laden with significance” before it meant laden with child.

Here we are dealing with a subtler misunderstanding. It’s true that in English the word is attested first in the sense “Full of meaning, highly significant”; OED (entry revised 2007):

1402 Thes wordes ben said of ȝou, with other pregnant prophecies of Peter and of Poule.
Reply Friar Daw Topias in T. Wright, Political Poems & Songs (1861) vol. II. 75

The first cite for the sense “having offspring developing in the uterus”:

?a1425 Þe kyngez lawe forbedeþ a womman pregnant [Latin pregnantem], i. wiþ childe, for to be biried vnto þe birþ go out.
translation of Guy de Chauliac, Grande Chirurgie (N.Y. Acad. Med. MS.) f. 151ᵛ (Middle English Dictionary)

But this difference of a couple of decades is essentially meaningless — an earlier attestation of the sense could turn up tomorrow. The important thing is the history of the word:

< (i) Middle French pregnant with child, pregnant (especially of an animal) (13th cent. in Old French; for earlier forms see note below; French prégnant; now archaic), (of a word) full of meaning (a1585),

and its etymon (ii) classical Latin praegnant-, praegnāns with child, pregnant, swollen, (as noun) pregnant woman, in post-classical Latin also imaginative, inventive (6th cent.), compelling, cogent (1267, c1380 in British sources), variant (after the ending of present participles; compare ‑ant suffix¹) of praegnāt-, praegnās (Plautus), probably < prae- pre- prefix + the stem of gnāscī (past participle gnātus) to be born, although the exact nature of the formation is not clear. Compare Italian pregnante with child (a1320), having an implicit meaning (a1606). Attested earliest in figurative use in sense A.I.1, which is apparently not attested in other languages so early as in English; compare also pregnant adj.², with which there is frequently semantic overlap in this sense.

Regardless of when each sense happens to be attested in Middle English, the historical sequence is clear: the word first meant ‘with child, pregnant,’ and then developed the figurative sense ‘significant,’ as should really be obvious from first principles.

So as not to close with a complaint, I’ll quote a pleasing paragraph from near the end of the piece:

Either way, suspense still reigns supreme. As long as the future remains opaque, it will also remain frightening and exhilarating, the repository of our greatest fears and wildest dreams. This is perhaps the most important way that real-life suspense differs from the fictional kind: in books and movies, we do not necessarily care if the outcome for which we have been waiting is good or bad—our primary concern is that it resolves the feeling of suspense in a satisfying way. But in life we care about those outcomes desperately. We want our fears to prove unfounded and our dreams to come true; we want to be spared life’s many possible devastations and gratified by its revelations and resolutions. This is, perhaps, the tenderest and most hopeful definition of suspense: it is the passionate wish, in the face of omnipresent doubts and dangers, that all will be well in the future.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    From the Shakespeare Concordance, pregnant is always used in a figurative sense, whereas the literal sense is conveyed by the phrase “with child”. Here are the two exceptional figurative uses of “with child”.

    Henry IV, P2, Prologue
    Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
    Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,

    LLL, IV.3
    Stoop, I say;
    Her shoulder is with child.

    You can argue this is poetry and “with child” scans better than “pregnant”, but I have some sympathy with something closer to the journalist’s POV, i.e., that “pregnant” I (figurative) was a learned borrowing from a Fr or Latin original, with “pregnant” II (literal) a separate (possibly later) borrowing. Note the figurative uses of “with child” in Shakespeare mean “swollen”.

  2. That’s all well and good, but as far as I can make out, she’s suggesting that the “with child” sense derives from the “significant” sense, which is wrong. They came into English via two different routes, that’s all.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    The educational system: While it is certainly true that etymology is not a subject much addressed in general education, I have trouble working up too much sympathy for a professional writer writing about word histories without ever having learned to use a dictionary. One need not even spring for an OED subscription. The free online Merriam Webster gives the same first use year for cliffhanger.

    Also, has the New Yorker abandoned its famous obsession with fact checking? Or does etymology not count, because reasons?

  4. I think the latter. Virtually nobody except linguists considers language study an actual body of knowledge in the way, say, astronomy is; they wouldn’t dream of publishing an article that made claims about the moons of Uranus without checking with a specialist, but when it comes to words and their history, if it sounds good, it is good.

  5. That “pregnant” literally means “before giving birth” just seems transparent to anyone who has studied Latin (or even Italian), even if “the exact nature of the formation is not clear.”

  6. Stu Clayton says

    even if “the exact nature of the formation is not clear.”

    A few years back I saw an article reporting that something like 40% of men asked about the MOs of female functions had no clue – pregnancy, menstruation etc. It offered more concern and outrage than statistics.

    But hoc est quod palles? cur quis non prandeat hoc est? We can all drive in the internet with only the vaguest notions about how it all works. Anyway, what do women know about the exact nature of men, our sufferings because nobody understands us ?

    Etymology and gynecology are best left to specialists.

  7. Richard Hershberger says

    “Etymology and gynecology are best left to specialists.”

    Disagree about the first one. Etymology seems to me to be a field where the educated amateur can usefully participate. But they have to treat it as a serious subject. That is the difference from the hordes looking for Just So stories.

  8. I would guess that “the educated amateur” is such a tiny slice of the population as to be essentially useless. Sure, once in a blue moon someone might come up with a helpful suggestion, but the vast, vast majority of amateurs have no idea of how to go about it. This is not unrelated to my perennial complaint about the failure of the educational system with regard to language.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    @RH: I agree about the hordes looking for Just So stories about women.

  10. Just Sew. (And cook.)

  11. David Marjanović says

    Also, has the New Yorker abandoned its famous obsession with fact checking? Or does etymology not count, because reasons?

    Few people are aware that there are facts in that field.

  12. Exactly.

  13. Jonathan D says

    they wouldn’t dream of publishing an article that made claims about the moons of Uranus without checking with a specialist, but when it comes to words and their history, if it sounds good, it is good

    It might be a rarer case, but I’m reminded of a legal case where the judicial officer of some sort reached conclusions based on their own faulty understanding of sun position in terms of compass direction, without any reference to the sort of expert witness usually required in court. I guess it’s like the language situation, where the problem is some idea that things like how the sun moves or words work are so basic that primary school was enough to understand it all…

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes: the problem is that most people don’t know enough to know how ignorant they are.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    I wouldn’t count “knowing how ignorant I am” as knowledge. It only raises questions: what kind of knowledge is this supposed knowledge that I am ignorant ? What do I know about it, except that it’s commonplace to congratulate onself on knowing how ignorant one is ? Answer: I know zilch about it. But I’m not sure that is knowledge. Go to beginning of paragraph.

    Knowledge and ignorance are very general notions of limited utility.

    A big advantage of ignorance is that it doesn’t lead into circular reasoning. It’s a safe space from which one can make tentative forays into knowledge, and then run back home when the going gets rough.

    I may well be ignorant of whatever knowledge I have. I certainly hope not. But I don’t know that for certain.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, but you need to reach a critical mass of knowledge in order to be able or willing to make forays into the unknown. You’ll hardly be doing that if you don’t realise that there even is an unknown to make forays into.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    A critical mass of ignorance serves just as well. When that is reached, I can’t stand it any more and try to do something about it. What happens then is anyone’s guess. If I can make or save money with it, that’s enough for me.

    I can’t earn a dime with self-congratulatory talk about knowledge and ignorance. These are interactive phenomena. When I find people willing to pay me for doing stuff, what do I care what it’s called ? Modesty promotes income ! Reliability is half the rent.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    I should here acknowledge my debt to Mr. Natural for his insights and behavioral tips.

  19. I can’t earn a dime with self-congratulatory talk about knowledge and ignorance.

    Of course you can — just go on TV talk shows. Er, I mean, start a Tik-Tok channel. Or whatever it is the bloviating class does these days.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    I had to give up self-congratulation because of high blood pressure. I learned, painfully, to praise other people, no matter what I thought about them. I was amazed to find how much that improves one’s reputation. I only wish I had known earlier about sharing, and the benefits of indiscriminate praise.

    Of course I still separate the wheat from the chaff. I merely have to be nice about it. All those business strategies you find described in the Harvard Business Review boil down to smiling while you turn the knife.

  21. “Lovely chaff you have there!”

  22. David Marjanović says

    You’ll hardly be doing that if you don’t realise that there even is an unknown to make forays into.

    I’ve cyber-run into lots of people who simply couldn’t imagine there was knowledge they didn’t already have in whatever field was being discussed.


    “Lots of people think they’re experts on language – after all, they speak one…”

  23. Trond Engen says

    Not only language. One of my sources of amusement is a article debunking the myth of Norway as one of the poorest countries of Europe in the 19th century. Once in a while it’s reposted in the Facebook feed because it’s “popular”. It always attracts a swarm of commenters that with great conviction and appeal to common knowledge can tell the historians that they are wrong.

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