When thunder rolls, what does air do?

Burst after burst the innocuous thunders brake

— Robert Southey

John Farndon’s “Weather: How to watch and understand the weather and its changes” is a charming children’s book published as part of DK’s Eyewitness Explorers series. On page 47 I read the following line:

Thunder is the sound of air bursting as it is heated rapidly by lightning.

The description struck me as strange, because I’m used to thinking of superheated air not bursting but expanding rapidly or violently to form a pressure wave that causes the sound of thunder. There is a sense in which burst can mean expand rapidly, but it more usually means something like explode or tear, or surge in more figurative contexts. That is, it tends to imply a physical membrane or boundary that is opened, ripped, broken, split, shattered, and so on; there is usually a sense of boundary-breaking, albeit one that varies greatly in intensity and abstraction.

Some examples will help us examine the semantic constellation of burst. Tomatoes that are bursting with ripeness burst in our hands or in the microwave. A tree’s roots burst slowly through concrete; the sun bursts through the clouds; swollen rivers burst their banks; the Hulk’s clothes burst at the seams; a sportsman makes a burst of speed to burst through the opposing defence; a busy room fills to bursting (point), whereupon the nearest person to the door might burst it open. The recurring sense of rupture or explosivity is evident in this word map from Visual Thesaurus:



People burst into song when their hearts are bursting with joy, and they burst into shivers if a window bursts open on a cold day; they burst into tears if their hair bursts into flame, and they burst into laughter (or “burst out laughing”) when a burst of amusing data enters their minds. We hear bursts of conversation and bursts of gunfire. We see bursts of activity, such as sudden bursts of rain or sunshine. When air or another gas bursts, it is usually from something, such as a tyre, bubble, balloon, nail gun, or a mouth in the act of blowing out a candle (though a puff is usually enough).

The sound of thunder can be a clap, crack, peal, snap, roll, or rumble; each term has its own nuances. But to explain the sound as air bursting is, I think, inferior to expanding rapidly or some such phrase that would minimise the possibility of fuzzy or misleading interpretations. Especially since many people — not least children — are afraid of storms, and air bursting carries more alarming connotations than does air expanding (slight semantic overlap notwithstanding).

Am I being foolish, fussy, or fair? Have I made a storm in my afternoon teacup?

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

9 Responses to When thunder rolls, what does air do?

  1. jo says:

    Hi Stan,

    Fun blog post. Buckminster Fuller used to complain that we say ‘the sun is rising’, which is so erroneous and leads to us perceiving things so wrongly that we can’t make proper scientific progress. It is best to tell the truth and bring as much understanding as possible to that truth – we can handle it! We may even experience a burst of growth!

    “The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.” B.Fuller

  2. Stan says:

    Well said Jo, and well said Mr Fuller! It’s strange, the myths we grow up with and the way they persistently influence our thinking. We have both a tendency to deceive ourselves and a responsibility not to! If we use language to untangle the knots, we sometimes find only more knots, all the way in (or, if we’re lucky, a more accurate representation of something). On Twitter today I posted a quote by Karl Kraus that’s worth repeating here: “The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.” Now, where’s my telescope?

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    You mentioning Karl Krauss, Stan, makes it easy, instead of bursting out into a long one, to cut my comment short. :)
    “Where the sun of wisdom is sinking deepest,
    even dwarfs are casting gigantic shades.”

  4. Claudia says:

    I don’t want to give up
    sun setting sun rising
    and the thunder rumbling
    in a frightening bang-up
    so don’t tell me what’s true
    teacher friend and guru
    I’ll argue and argue
    till in the face I’m blue

    thank you again thank you

  5. Stan says:

    Sean: Thank you, I like that one. It reminds me of the character of the wise fool. I don’t know Kraus at all well, but he seemed to have a talent for aphorisms.

    Nor must you give up
    sun setting sun rising,
    The old myth’s a magic cup
    that goes on surprising.
    Zeus keeps his place
    In the onset of rain
    and blue skies, not blue face;
    Objections sustained.

  6. jo says:

    Well, here is my argument against your sustaining the argument for using the word sunset(less poetic perhaps than your own reply):
    I think that truth is so beautiful that, if we challenge ourselves, we can find a way to describe it poetically. Just like the world being flat was a ‘poetic’ way to describe our perceptions at one time – now that we know better, our idea of a round world is far more poetic to our minds. And far more useful to our progress. It just takes getting used to. I believe some brilliant poet will someday find the right words to describe this truth. Maybe it is you Stan – but in granting artistic/poetic license, the work should be trying to head closer to truth – not away from it. We will look fondly from the future to those archaic days when we said sun set/rise, or the world is flat.
    I have faith!

  7. Claudia says:

    I hope when I wake up
    that Earth has been faithful
    and travelled to the place
    where sun will warm me up
    it would be quite dreadful
    if in its daily race
    my planet would not know
    when and where it should go.

    Well…I’m not Shelley and Lamartine!!!!

  8. Stan says:

    Claudia: Thank you for another beautiful short poem. (I forgot to thank you for your earlier one, preoccupied as I was with responding in kind.) It reminds me of how precarious is our position on the planet, how inconsequential we are to the elements, and how lucky we are to have lasted so long.

    Jo: Point acknowledged and greatly appreciated, but not adopted — at least not entirely! When I hear someone refer, for example, to the “four corners of the earth”, I enjoy the image and its poetic and symbolic truth, without believing that the planet is square-shaped (or that the speaker thought so). I don’t think the expression does any harm.

    The truth about anything is elusive, effortless, infinitely complex, and not conducive to language except by approximation. This the poets do well. The good ones anyway — the great ones transform it. William Blake looked towards the sun and saw a vast chorus of the “Heavenly host”. His vision may seem fantastic, whimsical, naive, absurd, but to deny it is to deny what anyone sees, since everyone’s interpretation of everything is unique, and uniquely valid and limited.

    Theodore Roszak put it well: “The mode of objective consciousness does not expand man’s original sense of wonder. Rather, it displaces one notion of beauty by another, and, in so doing, cuts us off from the magical sense of reality by purporting to supersede it.” The trick, I think, is not to erase older ideas and models but to accord them their modest place in an integrated awareness. Myths remind us of the metaphor in the middle of all the stories we tell ourselves about what we are, what the world is, and how it all got to be as it is.

    Alfred Korzybski made a very ambitious attempt with General Semantics to introduce a more logical, less abstract language; or a language that was more explicit about its abstraction. A language that better incorporated advances in science and maths, such as relativity theory. This approach serves a very useful purpose in some contexts, but it does not invalidate less “accurate” terms, i.e. terms that are less structurally congruent with what they refer to. Calling certain events sunrise and sunset is not cosmologically sound, but it makes sense in one sense; it’s not the whole truth, but no description ever could be, as Tarski showed.

    Besides, I’m far from convinced that, on balance, humans are making “progress” at the moment, or that they are likely to begin any time soon. It seems more like we’re hell-bent on destroying our planetary home, grabbing what we can before it goes or we go, and fostering elaborate delusions about it all, both personal and collective. We’re asleep at the wheel, and we threw guidance out with the gods.

  9. […] 28. what does air do? [Sustains us. Or do you mean when thunder rolls?] […]

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