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shameless pleading


Like August in the attic.

Dear Word Detective:  Back in central Pennsylvania, some of my relatives (mother, grandmother) would say that “It is close in here” meaning that it was stuffy, usually more specifically meaning hot, humid, with no moving air. The expression was also applied to conditions outside as well. Thoughts?  — Steve Benning.

Tell me about it. I grew up in coastal Connecticut, and I still remember visiting my grandparents in Columbus, Ohio in the summer as a child. It got hot in Connecticut, of course, but not like Central Ohio. Ohio was awful. Not a breath of wind, insanely high humidity and suffocating heat. The tar on the street melted and we wrote our names on the curb with it. I swore I’d never live in Ohio myself. Guess where I live now. Oh, well.

“Close” is an interesting old word. In English, we use “close” as a verb, as two separate nouns, as an adverb and as an adjective. The verb “to close” is actually the oldest in English, first appearing around 1200 and derived, via Old French, from the Latin “claudere,” meaning “to shut, to confine, to surround with walls, etc.” The verb “to close” in English also carries the figurative senses of “to end, conclude” (as in “close a deal”) and “to bring or move into close proximity or contact” (“close ranks”).

When “close” appeared as an English adjective in the late 14th century, it meant primarily “closed up, shut in or shut up,” with associated senses of secrecy, concealment or exclusivity (“When close plots faile, use open violence.” 1607). By about 1500, “close” began to develop its now-common sense of “in proximity in space, time, etc.” In this sense of “close” it is the spaces between things that are “closed up,” reduced to a minimum, making the things as near to each other as possible. Thus in a “close call” something (usually something bad) comes very “close” to happening, but does not. A “close shave” leaves no stubble, and a “close friend” is, in theory, never socially or emotionally distant. The adverb “close” is used in much the same sense (e.g., “I always sit close to the door”) but in many situations the form “closely” fits better (“I follow the playoffs closely”).

The use of “close” as an adjective to describe hot, stifling weather (or the hot stale atmosphere in a house or room) comes from the sense of a house or room completely “closed up,” with no circulation of fresh air. This use dates back to the 16th century (“We had now for several days together close and sultry weather.” 1748).

Synonyms for “close” in this “suffocatingly stale and hot” sense have included, at various times, “muggy,” “sulky,” “sticky,” “soggy” and, oddly, “faint” (here meaning “likely to cause fainting”). My favorite, however, is “pothery,” a 17th century English regional term formed on the noun “pother,” of unknown origin, meaning both “a disturbance” and “a smoky or dusty atmosphere” (“It wuz mighty pothery about three o’clock this onder — I thought we shoulden a ‘ad thunder, but it cliered off.” 1879).

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