Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How to Be Like a Banshee

When I was in elementary school I remember hearing about banshees (alt banshie) [Irish bean sidhe: woman fairie] from one of my teachers. She explained the Irish spirit's behaviour of wailing and sometimes flailing to foretell a death. It was then that I learned the phrase "to scream like a banshee" used to describe anyone whose scream was shrill loud or frightening. I didn't have any occasion to use the phrase until years later when I heard Sinead O'Connor sing.

Then I heard a line last week on That 70s Show that triggered a thought. How unlikely is that? In one scene Debra Jo Rupp's character "Kitty Forman" rushes past her husband saying "I have to pee like a banshee."

A simple Google™ search reveals several other verbs that can be done "like a banshee." Here are several that I found:

she wailed like a banshee: Wailing connotes more of a sustained noise. Probably more mournful than screaming. Possibly identical to screaming. Perhaps neither as frightened nor high-pitched.

You are shouting like a banshee: A shout can be more like a bark. It also more easily includes the possiblity of speaking coherently - just in a very loud and probably abrasive manner.

keening like a banshee: This one I love. It's certainly the most Irish in origin and connotation. It is specifically a cry reserved for deaths and funerals. It may be a shriek. It is usually prolonged. In some cases/regions it is actually a soft and pleasant tone.

Laughing Like A Banshee: Here we have to assume that the laugh sounds like a shriek. Odd however that a laugh would be described as sounding like a cry of mourning. There is poetry in this one (if the simile weren't so overused).

...and he could play the alto saxophone with astonishing fluency, but he often preferred to blow it like a banshee: The implication here is that "like a banshee" is not fluent. So the banshee's cry is apparently a shriek according to this writer.

Vocalist Robert Plant intervenes like a banshee: We've all heard him sing. This one seems obvious. But perhaps he doesn't intervene sounding like a bashee, rather he intervenes just like we would expect a banshee to intervene. Is it possible that the writer thinks banshees are busybodies and are always sticking their noses into people's business?

The following examples all seem to imply a frantic and relentless manner. According to these people banshees do everything with speed and intensity. Is this just a natural assumption to make about something that screams?

I was sweating like a banshee
started reading like a banshee
I’m writing like a banshee
It rained like a banshee
drives like a banshee on crack
: The "like a ____ on crack" snowclone is the heir to the "like ____ on acid" construction. Whereas "on acid" implied surreal qualities "on crack" seems to imply agressive random and reckless qualities. After "like a banshee" it's overkill.

complaining like a banshee: Here we have to wonder if the complaining is loud, which would put the simile in one category, or if it's incessant and wild - which would put this example in the group above.

The following two examples sound like a description of how the banshee might move - though the description might also be just an extension of the group that merely associates banshees with frantic intensity.
flew like a banshee
spinning like a banshee

Banshees are not always described as moving about. They are sometimes sitting at a stream washing clothes. Often they are not even seen, or at least difficult to spot. This as we would expect from regional variation.

started ripping at my hair like a banshee with a comb: This one combines the flailing image and an actual characteristic of the myth. In some areas the banshee is believed to groom her long hair with a silver comb. And a comb itself can be a symbol of the banshee's presence, not to be picked up.

He/she made out like a banshee: This one probably confuses the phrase "like a banshee" with the phrase "like a bandit."

We had been going out for a month or so with no booty. he'd want to kiss and make out like a banshee: This one is hilarious. Probably someone who had heard "make out like a banshee" in the previous sense and in turn gave the term "make out" the concupiscent meaning. I'm sure this one also belongs with the group associating banshees generally with intensity and fervor.

Make a fire truck that handles like a banshee: I have no idea if this one came around after the Yamaha ATVs contributed to the meaning of "like a banshee."

Bottom line: swing like a banshee with the big stick: Instructions on how to play golf. Apparently banshees sometimes show up on Royal Troon.

The following example is by a writer who apparently has some idea that "like a banshee" is overapplied. Points for the slight humour at least.
My thighs hurt like a banshee (assuming banshee's are in a state of chronic excrutiating pain.)

Obviously several assumptions are at work here about banshees' sound, appearance and behaviour. When the Yamaha committee decided to name their "Banshee" line of ATVs I'm quite certain they weren't hoping to connote the fairie's main role of foretelling or reporting a death. And if they were tying the the screaming sound of their engine to the shriek of a banshee I'm sure they had danger in mind but probably not fate.

[Update - I forgot to mention one common use that helped to propel this post. I have seen it several times on computer forums regarding the speed of a computer. When a change in hardware or operating system leads to increased or decreased computer speed several writers have resorted to the simile "screams like a banshee." To "scream" has for a while been used to mean to "move/function with extreme speed." Is this related to the sound an engine makes when it reaches high RPMs?]


  1. At work we sometimes kick it up a notch and say "like a banshee warrior."

  2. Makes me wonder if Dervishes do anything other than whorl.

    I wonder if Whitman's "barbaric yawp" had something to do with bansheeism. Anyway, did you read the wikipedia entry for the term "banshee?" Who knew? Irish death angels or something like that... very cool.

  3. Yamaha Banshees scream like a banshee. That's why they're so much fun (presuming that banshees have a lot of fun). And Yamaha Warriors tear up terrain like a warrior on the warpath. So maybe Yamaha would be willing to be Advent Source's corporate sponsor. Then Daniel could be paid to do various things like a "banshee warrior." It could be his fate rather than a personal danger.

  4. In that case Yamaha should take one of its ATVs and ruin the alignment so it just whirls out of control. They could call it the Dervish.

    Excellent Anglo Saxon use of "whorl" there Casey. Although the spelling is the noun form (curlique, loop...) it's a Middle English dialectal variation of "whirl."

    I'm many little brain...

  5. For some reason... I thought... I... how embarrassing.

  6. We always say "blowing like a banshee" referring to the wind wailing.

  7. I just encountered "drink like a banshee". I'm so glad somebody else has noticed this strange phenomenon!

  8. what about yamaha banshee!! thats the only one i like and know!

  9. Weird how comment threads, their time come 'round at last...

    As a Yank, I can say: banshee's been misused. But I'd say that the misuse usually bends in the direction of the original intent, that being intensity. So that to do something "like a banshee" is to do in fiercely. Mostly, I've heard "wail like a banshee" from the sense of a screeching electric guitar solo, turned into "rock like a banshee" which is more vague. But it's wrong to take the meaning away from anything sonic.

  10. how could anyone become a banshee


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