Word Stories - November 2, 2020 - 3 min

Peace and Quiet

When people decide to take a little rest for the sake of their health, they often say they’re looking for some “peace and quiet.” The association of noise with unrest can be found throughout the English language. The word quiet is related to the Latin quietus, which literally means “rest,” for example, and in stark contrast the word noise comes from the same Greek root that gave us the word nausea (nausiē). By the same token, when people describe a commotion, a ruckus, an uproar, or a hullabaloo, they almost always have in mind something unpleasant - not just something loud. This Word Stories instalment explores the longstanding linguistic contradistinction between peaceful quiet and unsettling noise.


The etymological derivation of the word noise is disputed. It has been suggested that noise is derived from the Latin root nocēre/noxia (“harm”), which also gave English the words noxious and nuisance. In support of this theory, there is the suggestive fact that nuisance sometimes appears as noisance, in both English and French). The most popular and secure etymology of noise, though, treats it as related to the word nausea.

So how does one get from nausea to noise? The ultimate root of both words, according to the dominant theory, is the classical Greek word naus, which means “ship.” For most ancient Greeks, sailing was more of a rare and hazardous necessity than a relaxing hobby. Discomforts like seasickness (nausiē/nautia) were a serious concern. When Latin speakers borrowed the Greek word for seasickness as nausea (or nausia), they added the wider connotations of “illness” and “disgust” to the narrowly literal sense of “seasickness.” Since sickness is a lot more common than sailing, later related words like the French nausée and the English nausea preserve only the later connotations of illness and disgust. In the modern English word noise, even these traces have been lost. The unpleasantness of (sea)sickness is felt only in the fact that noise is often deemed harmful or at least unpleasant. When people talk about noise, they usually have in mind the kind of sound that disturbs the peace. People file noise complaints when audible sounds become a nuisance. They don’t file sound complaints!


When the English word panic was born, it was - as the -ic suffix suggests - an adjective. Panic was used to refer to things associated with the wild Greek god Pan. The ancient Greeks lived in a world where the wilderness was more often dangerous and frightening than relaxing, and supernatural pranksters like Pan were infamous for terrifying flocks and people with weird noises. Sir Philip Sydney accordingly used the word for the first recorded time in 1586 to describe a community commotion that broke out “with Panike cries and laughters” (notice the capital P recalling the legendary uproars caused by Pan himself). Over time, the picture of Pan driving his victims into a “pannick fear” (see, for example, Thomas Herbert, 1665) gave birth to the noun we all know today. By the early 18th century, people had begun talking about the experience of falling into “a Pannick” (Lord Shaftesbury, Enthusiasm, 1708).

Later centuries further expanded panic's range of meaning. By 1827, the word had acquired the powers of a verb, and writers like Thomas Hood could describe sailors “panick’d by the billows’ roar.” Later still, this new transitive verb gave birth to an even newer intransitive verb, and modern authors like Rudyard Kipling can be found taking the liberty to refer to people who were, “so to speak, panicking” (Pearson’s Magazine, October 1910).

In traveling these new routes, panic eventually lost its traditional associations with Pan and his noisy, terrifying enchantments. It is, however, interesting in this context to note a poetic plot twist provided by modern medicine. Clinical studies show that the experience of unsettling noise (like chronic tinnitus, for example) can often cause, and be caused by, episodes of acute anxiety - the kinds of episodes 20th-century clinicians decided to call “panic attacks” (British Journal of Psychiatry 112, 1966).


The word quiet is derived from the Anglo-Norman/Middle French word quiet (“tranquility” or “peace”), and thereby ultimately from the classical Latin quietus (which referred to sleep and also more generally the absence of activity, noise or trouble). The English derivation quiet picked up and maintained this association of silence with tranquility, as seen for example in common word pairings like “quiet and pais [peace]” (Of Arthour and of Merlin, 1330), or “quiete and reste” (J. Trevisa, Polychronicon, 1397).

A peace-loving king might therefore be called a “quyeet” man (2 Chronicles 14:6, Wycliffe’s Bible), and countries at peace were said to be “at quiet” (R. Knolles, The generall historie of the Turkes, 1603). By the same logic, troubled souls might be described as “out of quiete” (Thomas à Kempis, English edition, 1893). When Charles Dickens writes in The Pickwick Papers about the pleasure of “a quiet cup of tea” (1837), the issue at hand is a palpable feeling of peace - not simply a question of audible noise.

The verbal form to quiet is even less tied to the connotation of literal silence, and seldom refers to noise per se. The oldest extant reference (in J. Trevisa’s English edition of De Proprietatibus Rerum, 1398) describes, for example, the way sleep helpfully “quiets” the emotions, and even today anxious people speak of the need to “quiet their nerves.” For such reasons, the ancient association of quiet with tranquility has never gone away: the common English phrase “peace and quiet,” for example, can be found in print as far back as 1397 (“pees and quiete” - Trevisa, Polychronicon).

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