The Grammarphobia Blog

Thundering in the index

Q: By any chance do you know the context in which the phrase “thundering in the index” is, or was, used? And just what does it mean?

A: The verbal phrase “thunder in the index” means to give something a big build-up, and it apparently has its origins in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s.

In Act III, scene 4, Hamlet rages at his mother, and Queen Gertrude asks him what she’s done that warrants such heated language: “Ay me, what act, / That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?”

The word “index” once had the meaning, now obsolete, of a preface or prologue. So the Queen is asking what act of hers was so horrible as to deserve such a scathing introduction.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t discuss the expressions “thunder in the index” or “thundering in the index,” and it doesn’t have any published references for them.

But since the 1300s, the OED says, the verb “thunder” has meant “to speak in the way of vehement threatening or reproof; to utter terrible menace or denunciation.”

Similarly, the noun “thunder” had been used figuratively to mean “threatening, terrifying, or strongly impressive utterance; awful denunciation, menace, censure, or invective.” In other words, a royal harangue.

So these uses of “thunder” would have been familiar to Shakespeare.

In most of the examples we’ve found of “thunder in the index” or “thundering in the index,” the thundering is more public relations than anything else.

When used today, to “thunder in the index” means to make a lot of noise about something—either pro or con—in advance of its appearance.

Unlike many Shakespearean expressions, this one isn’t that familiar now, though it wasn’t unusual in the literary writings of a hundred years ago.

Here’s how it was used in an 1897 issue of The Nation: “The first number of Literature, bearing in this country the imprint of the Harpers, does not offend by thundering in the index—unless the clatter of the hoofs of the steeds in Mr. Kipling’s poem, ‘White Horses,’ be taken for thunder. Apart from this poem, and Mr. Birrell’s not very striking paper on criticism, this initial number has no showy bid to make for public favor.”

Here’s another example, from a 1911 issue of the journal Iron Age: “In matter and manner the Government’s petition reads more like a political campaign document than a pleading in a case involving momentous issues. Its recklessness of statement, its ‘thundering in the index’ lead one to doubt at times whether it is intended to be taken at par.”

Finally, an Oct. 3, 1915, review in the New York Times of the book Walks About Washington says the author, Francis E. Leupp, “does not thunder in the index, for as you read on you get the impression of a ramble through some quiet Southern city.”

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