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Can you please tell me what a-thump means in the following sentence taken from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca? Why is the hyphen used there?

And Jasper, dear Jasper, with his soulful eyes and great, sagging jowl, would be stretched upon the floor, his tail a-thump when he heard his master’s footsteps.

I can’t find any reference for a-thump in any dictionary.

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  • It's old-fashioned for going a-thump or thumping along. Oct 2, 2022 at 17:07
  • But I can't find any reference in any dictionary Oct 2, 2022 at 17:41

1 Answer 1

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The reason why you couldn’t find this in a dictionary is because you were looking for the wrong thing. No dictionary ever, ever contains all possible derived words, because that would be impossible. And wholly unnecessary.

Don’t look for complete words; look for the individual pieces an unfamiliar word was, or may have been, built from—here a prefix plus a verb to derive a new ad-hoc modifier. You need to learn to recognize the a- prefix being used here, just as you would recognize a prefix like un- or a suffix like ‑ness or ‑ed.

According to the OED paywalled link, this prefix means:

With nouns and verb stems, forming adverbs (and derived adjectives and prepositions) expressing activity, position, condition, etc. Now chiefly poetic.

This means that a tail adangle would be one that was dangling, one aflicker would be one that was flickering, one abuzz would be one that was buzzing, one abristle would be one that was bristling, one a-wag would be one that was wagging, one ataunt would be one that was taunting, one athump would be one that was thumping, one aswirl would be one that was swirling, one a-twirl would be one that was twirling, and so and so forth.

This is not a closed set. People can produce new ones on demand as suits their fancy. But mostly only writers of poetry and literature do so these days. But you could find it anywhere, really.

One last thing for you to please note is that the written hyphen does not matter, and so you should count upon neither its presence nor absence in any of these words. Often people use a hyphen for ad-hoc derivations, but you can’t predict that.

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    Thank you! I'm still learning! As for your answer, it's what I was looking for! It's clear and easy to understand! Oct 2, 2022 at 20:03

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