whunk (noun): a dull hollow sound, as of a bullet striking something (apparently only in the work of Hemingway)
Hemingway used the word in Green Hills of Africa. He used it twice, so it was no accident, and it was in the serialized version as well as the final book. A simple compound word – whistle and thunk – with an echo to the end of it.
When was the first time he thought of it? On that safari, perhaps, or when he was an ambulance driver during the First World War. Was the noise that of a bullet going into the thick hide of a rhino or lodging in the frame of his ambulance cab as he sped through the streets of Milan. That context makes a difference, does it not?
Maybe it’s this word that accounts for his tempestuous marriages, and for that Red Cross nurse who jilted him. A couple of glasses down and he’d start harping on, yet again, about the precise sound of a bullet hitting the wooden lintel over your shoulder or ripping into the calf of a running soldier. 'There’s no dictionary word for it', he’d say and Agnes or Hadley or Pauline would lay a hand on his arm and say, 'hush now, Ernest, it’s not something to get worked up over'.
He tried to shoehorn it in to The Sun Also Rises, perhaps, but it didn’t fit and his editor for A Farewell to Arms quietly scored out the nine instances of it. It wasn’t a word, so it didn’t make it into the novel.
That whole set in Paris had to hear about it – Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Ford Madox Ford. Each of them nodding thoughtfully over their absinthe spoons – 'that is the noise, yes, as it hits the hunted deer or peppers the barracks wall' – but they soon forgot. Poor Ernest couldn’t shake it, though. He heard it at night; it wrenched his eyelids open just when they seemed to be heavy with sleep. It was his green fairy, his shell-shock.
On fishing trips, or in the bar, he’d often return to that familiar refrain. 'The precise noise,' he’d say, 'the exact sound'. In Key West by then and unsettled in family life; looking at the sideboard and imagining a bullet shattering the china, watching the dog by the hearth and that soft flesh rising and falling as it snored.
The safari trip to East Africa was concocted to test his neologism. He’d listen for the noise of the bullets in the Serengeti – if it was the same for water buffalo and zebras, for giraffes and gazelles. Against the dust, against the dry grass, he’d fire his shotgun shells and listen, take notes. The fever he contracted, along with dysentery, only deepened his conviction. This was the onomatopoeic word for the moment of the bullet hitting. No ricochet.
So it went into Green Hills of Africa and the editor in New York let it pass. Maybe he didn’t have a dictionary to hand, or perhaps he had a heavy head from the night before. It could be, even, that he realised that this wasn’t Hemingway’s finest work – wasn’t a patch on the stories – and so the manuscript got less attention, less red ink.
On Hemingway went to the Spanish Civil War, to Cuba, and to his third marriage. Plenty of conflict, and every time he heard a bullet hit – or imagined the act of firing – he had the thought: there’s a word for that, there’s my word for that. There’s a confidence to that – it engenders an arrogance – and he sought out situations in which he might hear the sound repeated, in bullet staccato. The Blitz in London and the Normandy landings in France. His fourth wife also had to be told of this word, of how apt it was – the perfect terse, taut word to give not just the noise of the striking bullet but also to intimate the moment of silence afterwards. That moment that comes before a sob of relief, a scream of agony, or the slump of death.
Then, later in life, tormented by failing eyesight and by a conviction that the FBI were watching, Hemingway sat in the foyer of his home with a shotgun and stared down the barrel. He knew the sound as it hit other objects, other living things, but would it be the same for him? He wouldn’t be able to note it, wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, but at least he’d know. And the word itself would be left behind – that was his legacy – in the Green Hills of Africa, even if only there.
And what if the New York editor had questioned its usage, what then? Would the shotgun have been turned on that editor, maybe, in his office with the piled manuscripts, the cigar in the ashtray, and the view – if you stood at the right angle – of the Chrysler building. Would Ernest have travelled up from Florida, if the editor sent back a note which said, 'no such word: try thwack or thud, clonk or crack'. Shotgun in his suitcase, would Ernest have taken to his car and driven up the Eastern seaboard?
The editor would look up from his desk, grinning at the sight of Hemingway but with a quick fade as he saw the shotgun. He’d start to speak, but Ernest would step forwards and fire a bullet into the plaster above his head. Close enough for the editor to feel the trajectory of it, to hear the whistle and ring of it along with the whunk as it hit the wall. Then Ernest would pause, just for a beat, before asking: 'that’s the very noise, wouldn’t you say?' And the editor would nod, reach out to take the editorial notes from Hemingway – the notes about thwacks and thuds, clonks and cracks – and tear them to strips that would settle down by the plaster dust on the carpet.
Hemingway, satisfied with his powers of persuasion, would turn then and stride out of the office. The word would appear in the Green Hills of Africa and he could go listening for it in those wartime battlefields and executions, coups and massacres. It would appear for ever more in his carefully crafted prose, with no need for him to seek confirmation as to whether the editor’s head accepted a bullet with the same sound as plaster or gazelles, as an ambulance cab or the calf of a running soldier, as a rhino hide or a hunted deer. That experiment could be kept for years later, in the quiet of his home, and that moment – after the noise itself – when he’d know, once and for all, if he got it right.