I’m currently in the process of editing my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot for publication. It’s always a fascinating process having new eyes reading your work. My editor pointed out that my characters seem to do a lot of sighing. Sure enough, I found 31 instances of the phrase “s/he sighed”.
By far the biggest sigher in my book is Charlie. His twin brother is in a coma, and he’s having to come to terms with the part he’s played in the demise of their relationship so he has quite a lot to sigh about. But still, it gets tiresome to read it.
I analysed every sigh in the manuscript to decide if it was really necessary. What did it express, in each instance, and could that idea be demonstrated in another way? Sighs can convey exhaustion, reluctance, assent, resentment and resignation. They can provide a pause for thought while we think of a way to express something difficult, or are even a replacement for expressing something difficult.
What a hard worker the sigh is! What a heavy load it carries. Why aren’t there other words to help out?
I think of a sigh as somewhere between a movement and a sound, almost always accompanied by a dropping of the shoulders. But the sense of movement that comes with a sigh is not conveyed by any of the synonyms I found.
There is ‘breathed’ and also ‘exhaled’ which explain the physical action of sighing, but without the addition of adjectives (heavily, slowly) don’t carry anything of the emotion that underpins a sigh.
Some thesauruses (thesauri?) suggested ‘moaned’ or ‘groaned.’ But moaning and groaning have very particular sounds associated with them, whereas I think of a sigh as almost soundless. And groaning, especially, seems to me to be a very conscious action, whereas sighing is often unconscious or inadvertent.
One thesaurus suggested ‘sough’ which is a word I’ve seen but never used in writing or speaking. Apparently it means to make ‘a moaning, whistling or rushing sound as of the wind in the trees’ and is pronounced either ‘soff’ or ‘sow’ (rhymes with cow). It sounds like it would be right at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story, perhaps, but would not fit quite so well in my book.
I wonder if there are more words for sighing in other languages? Or if anyone knows a word for the expression of utter exasperation that is somewhere between a sigh and a growl?