To Thole or Not to Thole

Did you know that thole is a word? Me neither until this morning, when my sweetheart, Lisa, who is a self-proclaimed word nerd, emailed me Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Day."

There it was: thole. "Well, that's interesting," I thought, but I overstated the matter. Thole is interesting the way that farina is interesting, possessing much the same personality.

Thole begins well as a pronunciation, but it falls flat at its definition. With its high-sounding Medieval lilt, thole is the kind of word you'd expect to perhaps refer to a Celtic bard, or some vital part of a knight's armor, or a high-ranking official in a king's court: "Lords and ladies, presenting his worship, Sir Edward Lockshire, Thole of Camelot."

Thole means none of those things. In fact, thole isn't a thing at all. Thole is a verb, not a noun.* You don't see a thole, admire a thole, wish you had a thole, or even feel indifferent about a thole. You simply thole. Or maybe you don't thole, depending. If you've made it this far into this article, I'd say that you thole quite splendidly.

Shall I tell you the definition of thole? Yes, if I wish you to refrain from wringing my neck. Thole means endure. Got that? When you thole adverse circumstances, you endure them.

Now, doesn't that just suck in every way possible. Seriously. See for yourself. Go ahead and try substituting thole for endure in any sentence you please, and then you tell me whether the result satisfies.

"Come, let us thole."

"The journey is long and hard, but I shall thole."

"I thought you would thole, but you didn't thole at all--wimp!"

Past tense is worse yet. Slapping an -ed on the end of the word sounds just plain weird:

"I thought you tholed, but now I think that thole ithn't in your vocabulary. I mean, isn't. Thole isn't in your vocabulary."

Good thing it's not, that's what I say. If we must endure, we'd prefer to do so without lisping.

When you need to convey a concept that smacks of character, such as endurance, you need a word with enough personality to do the job right, and thole isn't it. Nothing about it fits, not even the noun you could extrapolate from it. From endure you get endurance; does it follow, then, that thole gives you tholance?

Fortunately, no. Looking in the dictionary, I find one small ray of sunshine in whose warmth we can bask: there is no tholance. Those of you who fancy yourselves tholant, put it away. There's no such word.

But getting back to the need for a word's personality to match its character, open your thesaurus and you'll find a whole list of colorful and useful synonyms for endure: Survive. Gut it out. Persist. Brave. Push through. Bear. Undergo. Withstand. Sustain. All good words, very good--words with grit and muscle, and there are more where they came from. In contrast, switching out endure for thole is like replacing Mike Tyson with Woody Allen: neither substitute packs the punch it needs.

For all of the above reasons and others besides, you will not catch me using the word thole in my writing. It simply fails to convince.

So what do you think of all this?

That's what you think? Well, in fact, no, I really do not have way too much time on my hands. I just felt compelled to write. In this life, some matters are of such grave importance that they require comment. This is not one of them, but I have commented anyway. Now I'm finished, and you can get on with the rest of your day. Thank you for tholing this post to the very end.


* Okay, I have to recant. A second look in the dictionary reveals that thole is also a noun. According to Webster's, the noun form of thole refers to "either of a pair of pins set in the gunwale of a boat to hold an oar in place." This definition of thole I can handle, though its usefulness is limited. Among the world's least-asked questions, "Who's bringing the tholes?" has got to be near the top of the list.

7 thoughts on “To Thole or Not to Thole

  1. Excellent! You made me laugh! It is also quite refreshing to read a blog free of spelling and grammatical errors. Definitely worth tholing. ; )

  2. I’m glad you got a grin out of it, Jill! Thanks for letting me know. As the post’s author, I wasn’t sure whether I had written a comedic jewel or a lame-o attempt at humor. All I knew was, I couldn’t pass over the word thole without saying something about it.

  3. Thole’s a well known word north of the old border (in Scotland). Or weel kent (well known) as some still say in pairts a (areas of) Scotland. It’s not as vague as you’d think, indeed it is rather kenspeckle (recognisable). The Scots have their own dictionary and their own alphabet with more letters.

    When the Scottish King James VI took the throne of England in 1603 becoming James I of England and VI of Scotland, he undertook to have one unitary language for the people of this island to speak, he labelled it The Britain Tongue, though with those invited to the party, the Scots party were always outnumbered by about 4-1 in those days, about 10-1 today

    (many wars fought to swell the coffers of London down through the ages of empire seen to that, with Scots, Irish, Welsh and northern Englanders always on the front line)

    however the Britain Tongue became known as the English language, though it ever was more Scots than English. With a hotch potch of Franco Latin variables and a smidgin of other words thrown in for guid measure.

  4. Well shared, Brian! I dinna ken the popularity of thole in Scotland. Thanks for sharing your insights into the Scottish lexicon and its contribution to the English language.

  5. I’m saddened by your dismissal of thole, which is a fine word with a proud history. My mother’s family, who are originally from the Scottish lowlands, have a very old motto “Thole and think on”. A marvellously stoic attitude for a clan which no doubt suffered many “deidly feids” and “cruel slauchteris” over the centuries. As Brian points out above, the word is still well known in Scotland. But thole has much more to offer than that. Here’s Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his translation to Beowulf:

    “What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning ‘to suffer’, the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. ‘They’ll just have to learn to thole,’ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered through an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across unto Ulster with the planters, and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish, and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line, ‘Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole’, my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. The far-flungness of the word, the phenomenological pleasure of finding it variously transformed by Ransom’s modernity and Beowulf’s venerability made me feel vaguely something for which again I only found the words years later. What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multi-cultural odyssey was the feeling that Osip Madelstam once defined as a ‘nostalgia for world culture’. And this was a nostalgia I didn’t even know I suffered until I experienced its fulfillment in this little epiphany. It was as if, on the analogy of baptism by desire, I had undergone something like illumination by philology. And even though I did not know it at the time, I had by then reached the point where I was ready to translate Beowulf. þolian had opened my right of way.”

    Rather lovely, no?

    So be a little kinder to thole. It’s made the journey from the great halls of Scandinavia, through Saxon England, Scotland, Ulster and the American South before fetching up on Merriam-Webster’s front page, only to suffer the slings and arrows of your outrageous blog post. Don’t you think it’s tholed enough?

  6. Oh, mercy! What can I say in the face of so impassioned an apologetic? I repent! I will never, never, never, never, never again say another mean word about thole, whose nobility shines with a luster I never imagined. I was but an ignorant lad, but now that I have been informed, I can no longer make that plea.

    Thanks for taking the time to share the quote, together with your own thoughts on a word that clearly deserves a veneration I’ve failed to accord it.

  7. Surely thole the noun and thole the verb have a bit in common. What common place object must endure more than a thole pin under the strain of rowing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *