“There are women who would shutter at the sight of the most harmless insect.”

This student’s error amazed me: I thought “shudder” was a word most people learned in childhood, whereas “shutter” was a later acquisition, once the architectural and decorative features of domiciles began to be interesting. First came “The Boy Who Learned to Shudder,” one of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm—and one that even today retains its original creepy features, which are real temptations for adult interpretation too. As a child I thought that story was both scary and hilarious, and I loved the word at first sight (or hearing). It’s very nearly onomatopoetic—or whatever the term might be that describes a word that feels like what it means. SHhhh-ud-d-d-d-rrrrr. Today kids don’t even have to read, or have read to them, the Grimms’ fairy tales; in 2004 a musical version of the story was written just for them, and they might get a chance to see that.

Even if the cottages in the fairy tales had shutters (and I really have no reason to think they didn’t), I don’t recall looking at a picture in a storybook, or even looking at a neighbor’s house, and wondering what those things on the sides of the windows were called. The first time I remember being told they were “shutters,” I was old enough to guess they were called that because they “shut” the windows, or shut out the light, or something. I’m not sure that I ever associated “shudder” with “shutter.” Why should I? My mother was a graduate of Newark Normal School and had the precise diction demanded of teachers back then. (She even had a small silver record made as part of one of her classes, reciting a passage from Alice in Wonderland in a crisp young voice…)

But my student evidently had never seen “shudder” written down, and had never heard a speaker precise enough to distinguish between “shuTTer” and “shuDDer.” I suppose this means he had spoken primarily with ordinary Americans, for whom in speech a central dd sounds mighty like a central tt.

He was writing against allowing women into combat units in the military. I stopped assigning this topic long before it ceased to be an issue, because I simply couldn’t bear to read some of the opinions expressed; rather than comment on the quality of their arguments, I simply wanted to strangle somebody when I read that women wouldn’t be good fighters because if they broke a nail they would cry or run away and look for a nail file, for instance. Or got upset by “horrible things.” And women can’t stand the sight of blood. (Oh no?)

This gem of a student escaped only narrowly with his life. Women, he argued, would not be effective in combat because they’re not merely afraid of guns, the enemy, noise, and of course blood: they’re afraid of BUGS, for heaven’s sake, and everybody knows that battlefields are full of bugs. These timorous entomophobes might be brave enough indoors, but let them out among the ants, butterflies, and beetles and they’ll fall apart. Or at least they’ll shudder. And it’s hard to aim a weapon and pull the trigger when you’re having a shuddering fit.

Pretty convincing argument, don’t you think?

In his sentence, though, the women don’t even want to leave the barracks. They see a “most harmless insect” and immediately SHUTTER! Close those window-covers, Girls, and keep the ladybugs out! (He doesn’t go on to specify how they would respond to a harmful insect; goes without saying, I imagine.)

Now, he doesn’t claim that all women have this reaction, but simply that “there are” women who do. Somewhere out there, there they are. And presumably we can’t tell ahead of time which ones are which kind. Best to keep them all out (just as they would do with insects).

Well, Summer has begun, both on and off the battlefield. Enjoy the great outdoors. But if you want to get any sleep at night, remember to shutter. Mosquitoes aren’t harmless, and even a cabbage moth can be pretty scary if it flies against your face in the dark. They might even make you shudder.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

9 responses to ““There are women who would shutter at the sight of the most harmless insect.”

  • Linda

    I am shuddering to think what would happen if I didn’t shutter my windows. I might, like, have to use duck tape to keep the windows closed in case, like, an insect (harmless or otherwise) came in. And, you know, I would be udderly horrified if I saw a cow too. Just don’t axe me what I would do if I was exposed to any horrible things. Some people just ain’t got no sense!

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    So, are those cicadas ever going to show up, or what? Now, THOSE
    are not only worth a shutter, but even a nightmare or two. Ever get buzzed in the ear by one of those babies?

  • RAB

    No cicadas in our neighborhood either. I was actually looking forward to them, shudderworthy though they might be. Our exterior shutters are merely decorative, but the ones on the insides of the windows might protect us if any cicadas got through the screens.

  • Lisa Shaw

    Well, for all intensive purposes, I think the student got the jest of it right. 😉 I love-love-LOVE the image you included of “the most harmless insect.”

  • yearstricken

    I only shutter at the sight of harmful insects.

  • Stacey

    I was hoping (beyond hope) that your student might somehow segue into a discussion of how women insert themselves regularly into trouble zones all over the world, with little more than a courageous heart, a notebook and a camera.

    • RAB

      Oh, I DO like that. There is a real sense of missed opportunities in some of these Horrors. If only the error were an experiment that led them to an insight, or a cleverness. But no.

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