Campanology Word of the Day: Plangent

A bell is a most expressive instrument. Dancing cascades of bells in a high bell tower can erupt into a merry peal to celebrate the day and lift the collective spirit. Or, quite the opposite, a single bell can toll with such plaintive resonance that it portends a painful melancholia and brooding sadness. The latter gives the feeling of the adjective: plangent. 

Plangent entered the English lexicon in the early 19th century, but it is borrowed from the Latin verb plangere. We’ve come to know two meanings of plangere: “to strike or beat” like a heart or drum (or one’s breast in grief), and the closely related “to lament.” Both connotations add power and poetry to our understanding of plangent. One might use plangent to describe a funeral cortège:

The mourners were summoned by the plangent toll of the old sexton’s bell. 

Powerful stuff. You can almost feel the slow shuffle of heavy footstep under the weight of sorrow and the deep, reverberating strikes of an unseen bell. So, the next time you’re out and about in the city or countryside, and your ears pick up the wafting toll of a bell from afar, ask yourself: what’s this bell telling me? Is it crying out in distress (a true tocsin or alarm)? Is it playfully announcing a wedding or birth? Or is it somberly saying that somewhere, someone is suffering? If you hear a plangent bell, take a moment, take a breath, and give a thought to our collective humanity.

Cover image: The historic graveyard and bell at St. Michael’s Old Church on the banks of the River Conwy in Betws-y-Coed, a village in North Wales.