Story of “scream”

Words about words

the scream

Photo: Nasjonalmuseet
“The Scream,”Edvard Munch, version held by the National Museum, Oslo.

Asker, Norway

As the title of Edvard Munch’s most famed work, perhaps one of the most recognizable in all of art, the word scream is an expression of sudden emotion that first appeared in English in 1605 in a transcript of a performance of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. On the morning of King Duncan’s murder, the young courtier Lennox remarks to the assembled court (Act 2, Scene 3) that “And (as they say) lamentings heard I’ th’Ayre; Strange Schreemes of Death.” Other literary figures followed Shakespeare with similar expressions of sudden emotion.

In 1708, English author, poet, and translator Alexander Pope wrote in Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day of “Dreadful gleams, Dismal screams.”

In 1820, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in Prometheus that “Oh, ye who shake hills with the scream of your mirth.”

In 1842, Charles James Apperley of the landed gentry of Wales and England and frequently resident in both countries, published a book called Life of a Sportsman, detailing the pursuits of the British social class of landowners, of which he was a prominent member. In it, he remarked on a character that “His scream, or view-halloo, is, indeed, wonderful.” For its time, Life of a Sportsman was an exceptional work that set several precedents. Apperley often wrote under the pseudonym Nimrod, apparently to keep his social status secret. The book, published in London, is an obviously costly 486-page, leather-bound tome. Moreover, it was among the first books illustrated in color, with 36 watercolor engravings.

In Norwegian, the equivalent to scream is skrike, an old verb without a linguistic history of its own. It comes from the Old Danish word skrige, which officially was the written word in Norway until 1814, the dissolution of the union with Denmark (1397-1814). 

Munch produced four versions of “The Scream”: two paintings (1893 and 1910) and two pastels (1893 and 1895). There are also several lithographs of it (1895 and later). 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.