Saturday, February 7, 2009


ululate [UHL-yuh-lāt]
v. to howl like a wolf; or to hoot like an owl

[Derives from Latin ululātus, to howl, shriek, imitating the sound of an owl]

Ululate, as its Latin etymology says, was originally onomatopoeic. That is, Romans were imitating what they thought owls sounded like. By the time ululate made it to the English tongue, the pronunciation didn't sound much like an owl. For that, we have the noun hoot ("to utter the characteristic cry of an owl"). Hoot as a verb can also mean "to cry out or shout, especially in disapproval or derision." If something is so trifling ("of very little importance; insignificant") that a person wouldn't even bother to shout his derision, he says, "I don't give a hoot."

Ululate has a noun form, ululation ("a howling sound"), which I came across recently reading the novel, A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. In a prison scene, some convicts were making a ruckus ("a noisy commotion"):
Conrad didn't know if it was his imagination or what, but the cheers that followed seemed like brutal cries, and a strange mad ululation spread throughout the pod as Beat Box thrummed his a cappella electric bass.

Ululation has a long list of near synonyms, most of which have imitative origins: bark ("the explosive cry of a dog"); bawl ("a loud, bellowing cry"); bay ("a deep, prolonged howl"); bellow ("the loud roar of a bull"); growl ("a deep guttural sound of anger"); howl ("a loud, protracted, mournful cry"); moan ("a prolonged, low, inarticulate sound of suffering"); roar ("a loud, deep cry or howl"); squall ("a loud and violent scream"); wail ("a prolonged, inarticulate, mournful cry"); woof ("the deep, gruff bark of a dog"); and yowl ("a long, distressful or dismal cry").

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