In today’s NY Times there is a travel piece on Le Marche by Christopher Solomon that opens with the sentence “‘I bring you a taste of my verdicchio,’ says our host as my friend Laurie and I sit down to dinner beside a murmuring fire.” The rest of the sentence (like the rest of the article: “He also loves the people, saying ,’They’re kind and they’re gentle and they’re modest and they’re slow'”) is standard travel-section cliché, but the word murmuring stands out: have you ever heard a fire murmur? Is this a shiny piece of freshly observed reality, or a simple misuse? We report, you decide. (And my thanks once again to Bonnie for the heads-up.)


  1. Perhaps the author was reaching, none too precisely, for a comforting anotynm to “roaring”?

  2. It wasn’t the murmuring that bothered me when I first read the article, it was the headline “Is Le Marche the Next Tuscany?” which made me want to drag out my red pen and correct it to “Are Le Marche…”
    But the murmuring fire seemed Sitwellesque, reminding me of Dame Edith’s “Dark Song”:
    “The fire was furry as a bear
    And the flames purr…”

  3. I think that murmuring was a big stretch, and careless writing.
    Ray Davis is right, I think. So now the question is, what’s the proper antonym?
    “Gurgling”? “Muttering”? “Whispering”? “Rattling”? “Nagging”? Please help me stop.

  4. I can see “purring,” and even “muttering,” which brings to mind bits of charred wood falling with little thunks. But “murmuring” just doesn’t work for me.
    Geraint: English subject-verb agreement goes by English rules, not Italian. Or perhaps you use “Athens” as a plural? It is in Greek, after all, which is why the -s is there in the first place.

  5. Using the rest of the quote to decide might seem unfair, but I would say that – in context – it’s bad writing.
    A precious attempt to sound beautiful and different.

  6. A murmuring fire makes about as much sense to me as a crackling brook.

  7. “The dithering fire?” “The kvetching fire”? “The nattering fire”.
    It may be too late for me guys. Save yourselves.
    So there could be one Athen?

  8. Works fine for me. I’ve always thought ‘roaring’ fire was a little too strong, ’cause fires usually really aren’t all that loud.
    From MW:
    a low indistinct but often continuous sound
    Seems like it could describe a fire just as well as an REM album…maybe there’s special kind of wood in Le Marche that produces murmuring, not roaring, fires.

  9. No, a fire doesn’t murmur, even a low burning one. Yes, we had a fire place in our suburban house so I not just guessing at this. And what are editors for, if not to catch poor word choices? This one should have been changed.

  10. I thought it excellent. Certainly far better than any of the other suggestions. I wonder why it troubles some of you so.
    The war against cliche: aluta continua!

  11. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    Crackling I could accept as a softer, more comforting sound than roaring…and as a sound consistent with flames. Still, I agree with those of you who’ve said that fires don’t murmur; the quote reads as if the author were desperate to avoid the usual cliché about fire sounds, and cast about for the least roar-like sound effect he could imagine.

  12. I’m hurt, Abdul-Walid Elck. “Dithering” seems perfect to me.

  13. J.E.: dithering was a close second. Hope that soothes you.
    John Emerson I understand. But is Ingeborg S. Norden out-poke-rfacing (Hat’s spam screen won’t let me spell that word in the conventional way)us all.
    Or is he actually this earnest?
    I’m still mystified about what exactly in this (not even all that) fresh metaphor bothers Hat.

  14. I’m with you, Abdul-Walid. Also “murmuring fire” seems to have a home in some poetry:
    Just sayin’.

  15. My God! It’s not just the one guy! The “murmuring fire” meme has metastasized like kudzu. This is worse than I could ever have imagined.
    “Blubbering fire”? “Giggling fire”? “Stuttering fore”

  16. If you call that poetry:
    To sit with you beside the murmuring fire
    When a stifled sunset dies,
    And watch through misty panes
    The boughs that toss upon a winter-driven sky
    And the swift eternal slanting of dark rains:
    These are my seasons,
    This is my calendar,
    Where love appoints the course of many a sun and star;
    And, wanting you, I should not care nor know
    If it were the time of falling jasmine-petals
    Or the time of falling snow

    And A.W., if it were a metaphor that would be one thing: “the fire murmured in my ear that all must be consumed” or whatever (forgive me, I’m still in the thrall of Clark Ashton Smith). But it seems intended as a straightforward description, akin to “crackling fire,” and I do not find “murmur” an accurate description of anything a fire does. But perhaps I haven’t been around the right fires. I’m content to let a thousand fires bloom in this matter.

  17. Et tu, Hat?
    “Murmuring fire” delanda est.

  18. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    As recently as I’ve disagreed violently with some language issues (the status of “erfly” as a word, the necessity of High Icelandic)…I agree with the site owner that “murmuring fire” is a rather poor metaphor that doesn’t match reality very well. Sometimes a poet does need to use surreal figures of speech, I’ll grant–but the original quotation that inspired this entry seems like a pretty straightforward, mundane text where that kind of surrealism is inappropriate.
    P.S. to whoever called me a “he”: I am female. (If you were referring to someone else in that “out-p*kerfacing” comment, however…please accept my apology.)

  19. I’d quite like to hear a fire stammer, while we’re on this.
    Afraid I just posted twice in the prescriptivist/descriptivist entry about the technical hitch with your university-publisher sale entry. Sorry, LH. Hope you can zap.

  20. “Whimpering”? “Sneering”? Perhaps a fire made with wet green wood, for example.

  21. Will do, and thanks for the heads-up. (All of you who have been dying to comment on the book sale — c’mon in, the water’s fine!)
    As for p*ker, I got fed up putting dozens of p*ker-related URLs on the MT-Blacklist and decided to just put the basic word there and delete all the rest — I’ve got almost 4,000 items as is! So if you want to discuss that particular game of chance in the comments, you’ll have to use the fig-leaf of an asterisk. Sorry about that. (The same goes for a number of drug names that turn up frequently in spam.)

  22. Ah, you’re victims of an anglo-saxon conspiracy against the murmuring of fire. I’ve never heard the fire roaring, myself, but then I’m throughly romance.
    Remember Martial’s epigram, “murmure iam saevo verberibusque tonas”, “you now resound with your severe murmur and your lashings”. If a murmur can be coordinated with a lashing, I don’t see why it can’t be predicated of fire.
    But then again, I do distinctly remember the murmuring fire in a fireplace in the wooded, mountainous country in the southern Andes, a chilly October…

  23. Of course, Matias, you’re citing the word in the common sense of “complaint”, so it’s not too far a fetch to latch it to lashings.
    I confess my position on this issue is influenced by a certain weakness for the audio-tactile pleasures of word “murmur” itself, which fact I noted in a post on my pages in October last year.

  24. The direct link to AW’s post. (I particularly liked the line “murmur murmur murmur murmur murmur murmur murmur murmur.”)

  25. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    Abdul-Walid: I can certainly understand how it feels to fall in love with a word, especially a word whose sound and meaning match beautifully. My own weakness is the Swedish word mysa ‘smile contentedly, get cozy’; when the context seems appropriate, I’ve been known to repeat mys mys mmmmyyyysss… several times. But (and this is a major “but”) I would not go out of my way to use it when that meant straining a metaphor.

  26. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    To the site owner: I read Abdul-Walid’s post just now; his reactions seem almost exactly like my reactions to mysa in its various forms. For once, we seem to be on the same proverbial wavelength…

  27. Abdul-Walid’s poem is almost perfect, but I think that, in context, the seventh “murmur” from the end was a little redundant.

  28. to me a roaring fire is one where the draft is running so strongly up the chimney that you do hear it as a roar — or at a blacksmith’s forge where the bellows are being pumped.
    murmuring fire…. can’t hear it. mumbling mice, yes.

  29. “You got to ro-ho-holl me
    and call me the mumblin’ mi-ice. ..”

  30. Sentimental and nostalgic. Great. Zachotnah.

  31. Sentimental and nostalgic. Great. Zachotnah.

  32. Easy navigation and good design. Lovely little piece of independent mind. Exellent.

  33. Did y’all really believe nobody would be able to see “Spamalot” coming? Avec ses gros sabots.

  34. John Cowan says

    “Is Le Marche the Next Tuscany?” […] English subject-verb agreement goes by English rules, not Italian.

    Quine’s Quiddities, s.v. “gender”:

    Outside of Cefalù in Sicily there is a hostelry named le Calette. It is common enough in Anglophone lands, if not in Italy, to give an establishment a French name pour le chic. […] Calette, however unfamiliar, is French at a glance, as French as Maurice Chevalier, but le Calette is naggingly indigestible: -ette is always feminine. […] Comes, then, the dawn: le here is not a French singular masculine article, but an Italian plural feminine article. Calette is not a French feminine singular, but the plural of an Italian feminine singular Caletta, again however unfamiliar. [It means ‘dovetail joint, mortice and tenon joint’.] That little point of an article’s gender made all the difference between singular and plural, between two syllables and three, and between French and Italian.

    It’s in this same article that Quine points out that “Mullins removed the manuscript from the briefcase and threw it into the sea” is ambiguous in English because you don’t know the referent of it, but unambiguous in French because it so happens that manuscrit and serviette are of different genders and must be referred to by different pronouns.

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