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Crowd Verbs

Nothing is harder to describe in writing than the behavior of a crowd. Something so everyday as how people act when ten of us appear in the same place with the same object of attention, something so affordant for performers, preachers, and politicians, should be accompanied by a large, refined, and subtle vocabulary. Instead we are stuck with a scale of behaviors graduated so coarsely that it is almost useless. A crowd can go wild, roar, applaud, get caught up, be intent, hush, be restless, be tough, be hostile, boo, hiss, jeer, and riot. There are more words, but on investigation they prove to be empty variations.

Crowd – the name itself is almost an abstraction. Its few synonyms only distinguish different venues: a gathering, an assembly, an audience, a congregation, an attendance. Among animals we can distinguish flocks, herds, swarms, pods, colonies, hives, schools, and packs, but among human beings we can only say crowds, crowds, crowds, though the human differences are greater.

(At this point in the essay I consulted a thesaurus, which yielded throng, a contraction for “crowd I don’t like,” and mob, a contraction for “crowd that doesn’t like me.” Later I thought of the crush and had to be there, which are promising but undeveloped.)

Language fails, and image fails too: film’s cantaloupe-murmuring crowds, its paid extras and vain camera-forward onlookers, are a convention as familiar and as absurd as sound technicians scoring heel clicks to sneakers.

When you hear or think or are tempted to say that language and literature are perfected, that there is nothing left for writers, poets, and translators to do but footnote and allude, remember that there is a hole in language big enough for everything from a picnic to a revolution to fall through. I doubt it is the only one.