How did people describe "electric" experiences before electricity?
December 20, 2006 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How did people describe "electric" experiences before electricity? I got to wondering when someone described the feeling of being pressed up against someone as "electric"...surely people had that experience (for example) before it meant "like invisible power" or "tingly all over"?

Ok, so the etymology is that it comes from "electrum", meaning "amber", which could be used to generate a static charge that would attract bits of hay, etc. Surely people didn't say, "oh, this powerful, exciting feeling is just like dander sticking to amber!"
posted by paul_smatatoes to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"Thrilling," perhaps?
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:27 AM on December 20, 2006

I can't go grab my copy of his complete works right now (at work) but I believe that if you picked up anything by Poe you'd find what you're looking for.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:32 AM on December 20, 2006

They didn't have electricity in Bible times, maybe try Song of Solomon.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2006

The Ancient Greek word entheos — we get "enthusiasm" from it — could mean either "posessed" or "inspired." I don't know for sure, but I like to think that the double meaning there illustrates one way that the ancients conceptualized that sort of excitment. It's still a source of energy in that metaphor — just divine energy rather than physical.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:44 AM on December 20, 2006

In French and Italian, the phrase for "love at first sight" is "hit by a thunderbolt" (or lightening? I always get it confused). In any event, still electric in some ways, actually, but with the nice tie-in to Jupiter's divine inspiration.
posted by occhiblu at 8:46 AM on December 20, 2006

Poe used electric.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:12 AM on December 20, 2006

According to the online dictionary of etymology (whatever that's worth) 'electric' has been around since 1600, so you'd have to look around then or earlier for literature. (Poe is 1800s)
posted by jacalata at 9:49 AM on December 20, 2006

It may not have come out of a wall-outlet, but people knew electricity -- thunderstorms. The way the air feels just before a thunderstorm is a pretty good simulation of being with your special one. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, usually considered the first novel in English, mentions electricity.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:58 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

i've heard of feeling galvanized- is that similar? i'm too lazy to check. on second thought, maybe you use electricity to galvanize. hmm. that wasn't a very useful answer. ...i'll just be over here sticking this knife into this toaster.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:00 AM on December 20, 2006

Don't do it Twist! Galvanic is pretty good actually... I just don't know when it came into use.
posted by Mister_A at 10:21 AM on December 20, 2006

According to the OED, "electric" was first used by William Gilbert in his treatise De Magnete.

From the Wikipedia article on De Magnete:
he also studied static electricity produced by amber. Amber is called elektron in Greek, and electrum in Latin, so Gilbert decided to refer to the phenomenon by the adjective electricus and the noun electricitas, giving rise to the modern terms 'electric' and 'electricity'.
And according to the History of Electricity article, De Magnete was the earliest academic entry on the topic... so I guess it doesn't really answer your question at all -- just sets a time frame.
posted by DrSkrud at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2006

And, of course, amber wasn't the only source of static electricity. Since folks have been weaving wool since at least 1500 BC, I bet they've known of electricity at least that long. That doesn't answer your question of what they called it, but they must have identified the feeling.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:11 AM on December 20, 2006

If you're talking about feelings around romantic love, isn't this a fairly recent concept in many societies? Yes, I know there are bits of classical texts which we can interpret as describing that kind of obsessive erotic attraction, but I don't see that we can get very far talking about words for a feeling that's really hard to define now (I'm not even sure I'm interpeting your definition terribly well) and which has probably changed over time.

But in any case, wouldn't "feeling tingly all over" work even before electricity was a widely-understood notion? Pins and needles, for instance. Butterflies in stomach (don't know when that was first used)?
posted by paduasoy at 11:35 AM on December 20, 2006

Chicago Public radio broadcast a series on the history of the senses that includes an episode on touch you can listen to online.
One of the participants is Professor Elizabeth Harvey, who edited a collection of essays, Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture. If I understand your question right, you might the discussion interesting.
posted by Abiezer at 1:13 PM on December 20, 2006

Best answer: Galvanic is also electric.

Keep in mind that this is a metaphor. An "electric" experience isn't some fundamental human experience. It's merely an experience (likely a range of experiences differing for each person) which someone compares to electricity, possibly including ideas of lightning, the fizzle-pop of an arc light, the stimulation of the motor nerves (see Galvani), static electricity, mild AC electrocution, 9-volt batteries to the tongue, the magic brightness of a light bulb, a feeling which rushes quickly through the senses, etc...

In order to work, the metaphor requires some shared experience which the speaker can guess may be understood by the audience. Insofar as people are not able to understand electricity, they are likely not to understand that kind of feeling, especially in the case where the metaphor refers to experiences in which expectations highly color our perception.

Recent discoveries and scientific theories were a big part of literary metaphor for many highly-educated Renaissance writers, which is one reason some of them are so hard to understand. We can't easily relate to hermetics and alchemy, so we don't always get what they're talking about.

Dissimilarity in the material for metaphor can also exist alongside dissimilarities of experience. Writers of other times *didn't* have the exact same experiences as we do, because they lived in different socio-economic contexts. For example: Shakespeare might have had a cup of tea in his lifetime; it was rare and horribly expensive and brand new to Europe toward the end of his life. If he did, it was nothing like tea today.

Note: we often put backdoors to our metaphor, as in the use of "electric" to modify "thrill" instead of "experience".

Note: I hadn't actually ever heard of "electric" used to describe human physical contact. I suspect that such impersonal ideas about the experience of mutual physical contact might have seemed odd to some people in the past.

Donne used the metaphor of alchemy -- something mysterious, but magically powerful, and strongly physical, which involves some kind of mixing, merging, etc... Here are two Renaissance poems which employ a similar idea to electricity: the idea of magnetism, though with a much different meaning:

The Magnet
by Thomas Stanley (1647)
Ask the Empresse of the night
How the hand which guides her sphear,
Constant in unconstant light,
Taught the waves her yoke to bear,
And did thus by loving force
Curb or tame the rude seas course.

Ask the female Palme how shee
First did woo her husbands love;
And the Magnet, ask how he
Doth th'obsequious iron move;
Watters, plants and stones know this,
That they love, not what love is.

Be not then less kind than these,
Or from love exempt alone,
Let us twine like amorous trees,
And like rivers melt in one;
Or if thou more cruell prove
Learne of steel and stones to love.

From The Antiplatonick
by John Cleveland (1653)
The souldier, that man of iron,
Whom ribs of Horror all inviron;
That's strung with Wire, instead of Veins,
In whose embraces you're in chains,
Let a Magnetick girl appear;
Straight he turns Cupid's Cuirasseer,
Love storms his lips, and takes the Fortresse in,
For all the Bristled Turn-pikes of his chin.
posted by honest knave at 2:36 PM on December 20, 2006 [6 favorites]

I seem to see "innervating", "invigorating", and "stimulating" a lot in old writing. Being "nervous" seemed to have less negative connotations, and might be used in a similar manner.
posted by freebird at 2:39 PM on December 20, 2006

"innervate" would have been after 1811.
posted by honest knave at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2006

Perhaps "shocking"?
posted by Count Ziggurat at 4:17 PM on December 22, 2006

I would think shocking.
posted by TravisJeffery at 6:31 PM on December 22, 2006

shock is too explosive/violent, no tingly
posted by trinarian at 10:09 AM on December 25, 2006

And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crater
Or earth-fire within?
Are we automata
or Angel-kin?

-R. H. Ash

Possession - a Romance
by A.S. Byatt
posted by yoz420 at 5:34 PM on December 26, 2006

Methylviolet: "Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, usually considered the first novel in English, mentions electricity."

Surely it was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which predates Tom Jones by about thirty years?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:18 PM on December 27, 2006

posted by selfmedicating at 10:14 PM on December 27, 2006

I'd have thought the word "spark" to be pretty obvious in this context. It's also interesting to notice that it is used for three things that are similar in appearance, but quite different in nature: electric sparks, sparks from fire and sparks from grinding...
posted by Skeptic at 3:59 AM on December 28, 2006

How did people describe "electric" experiences before electricity?

This entire episode tastes of bearded clam!

(Faded from usage after invention of nine-volt battery.)
posted by pracowity at 4:15 AM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

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