Sometimes, however, it’s the sound of loose screws.

Dear Word Detective:  In John Mortimer’s story “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation” (1988), a judge uses the phrase “rattling good yarns” to refer to certain stories. I had written this off as a one-off until this morning, when I observed that USA Today had used virtually the same phrase (“rattling good read”) in a review of James L Swanson’s “Manhunt” (2006). I found several other occurrences of “rattling good” online (mostly in relation to stories, but also with other applications). What’s the origin of this phrase, and (with respect to a narrative) does it in any sense suggest a fantastic or unbelievable quality?  (Swanson’s book is non-fiction.) — Charles.

Well, now you’ve done it. Thanks to your question, I’ve gone and increased my cultural literacy by looking up “Rumpole” on Wikipedia. I had, of course, been vaguely aware of British writer (and barrister) John Mortimer’s creation Horace Rumpole, a barrister in London, mainly from promos for the long-running (and apparently eternally re-run) TV series on PBS, and I knew there were a multitude of Rumpole books. I’ll try one or the other as soon as I finish my current sojourn in the works of John LeCarre, which I am reading as an antidote to the imbecilic, incoherent, and infuriatingly stupid third season of “Homeland.”

“Rattling” in its most common sense is an adjective or adverb that describes something that “rattles,” i.e., “[gives] out a rapid succession of short, sharp, percussive sounds, especially as a result of being shaken rapidly or of striking against something” (Oxford English Dictionary). The verb “to rattle” appeared around 1330, and may be related to the Dutch “ratelen,” meaning “to rattle” or “to babble,” but the ultimate origin of “rattle” and its relatives in other languages was probably imitative — “rattle” simply sounds like something rattling.

Apart from simply meaning “make a rattling sound,” “to rattle” has also developed a range of figurative and metaphorical meanings, including “to speak or recite very rapidly and smoothly” (“He rattled off the stats of every player in the league from memory.”), “to move rapidly with a rattling noise” (“We rattled to town in Dave’s old clunker.”), “to have far more room to move or live than is necessary” (“Mother rattled around in the empty house for a year, then moved to a small condo.”), and “to disconcert, startle, frighten” (“The sudden appearance of the Swat team in his driveway seemed to rattle Dwayne.”).

“Rattling” as a modifier reflects most of those senses of “rattle,” with an interesting addition. In the 17th century, that “speak or move rapidly” sense produced “rattling” meaning “brisk or vigorous” with overtones of “very good.” By the early 19th century, “rattling” was being used as an intensifier meaning “extremely or remarkably,” often coupled with “good” or similar positive terms (“A rattling fine dinner we had of it.” 1828; “This is a rattling good story.” 1930).

“Rattling” today is more often heard in Britain than the US, and, applied to a story, simply means “very fine and well-written,” as well as often “fast-moving, exciting and vivid.” Non-fiction and journalism can also be “rattling” if the narrative carries the reader along with energetic and lucid prose. A slightly archaic synonym with a similar evolution, “ripping,” now tends to be associated with adventure stories of the Indiana Jones genre. In fact, as some of us fondly remember, Monty Python veterans Michael Palin and Terry Jones produced a TV series for the BBC in the late 1970s called “Ripping Yarns,” an homage to (and parody of) the sort of “action stories for schoolboys” popular in Britain before World War Two.

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