In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the housing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away in the darkness.

From "The old man and the sea" by Ernest Hemingway

Stiff and set are two different adjectives describing the wings, right? But I don't get the meaning of set here.

  • 1
    "set" could mean "fixed in position, rigid" Mar 29, 2021 at 15:52
  • 1
    The fins ('wings') of flying fish do not flap in the way that true wings do. They enable the fish to glide. Forward propulsion can only take place in water. Mar 29, 2021 at 18:43
  • @MichaelHarvey: I watched a video on youtube to help me get a better view. Thanks for your clear explanations Mar 29, 2021 at 21:02
  • When I wrote 'true wings' I think I meant 'birds' wings'. Mar 29, 2021 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


Set is a tough word because it has so many meanings! Yes, stiff and set both describe the wings. The meaning of set here is

23a : to fix firmly : make immobile : give rigid form or condition to

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    So you mean set is used in its past participle form, right? Mar 29, 2021 at 17:15
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    @MostafaF.Rad In the definition I used, yes, it would be a past participle. But you could also interpret it as an adjective, like 5a: IMMOVABLE, RIGID. The meaning is the same.
    – stangdon
    Mar 29, 2021 at 17:40

I'd say stiff adverbially modifies set in OP's context, but that may be just a matter of opinion. Compare these two written instances...

1: the bird goes gaily on, and with stiff-set wings sails downward
2: A strong-framed man of thirty-nine with hard-set good looks

...where in both cases it's worth noting the hyphen joining the two adjectival terms - which to me implies that the first adjective more closely associates with the immediately-following second adjective than with the actual noun. In my book, an adjective that modifies another adjective is more properly called an adverb (even though it doesn't actually modify a verb, as the name might suggest).

In context, the word set carries very little meaning over and above that conveyed by stiff anyway, but essentially it refers to the physical arrangement, the way the bird is holding its wings. Compare to the setting of a diamond in a wedding ring, or I liked the set of his shoulders (the confident way he held his shoulders; he didn't slouch).

  • What do you mean by "OP's context"? And what does OP stand for? Mar 29, 2021 at 17:34
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    @MostafaF.Rad - the OP is the Original Poster (you). Mar 29, 2021 at 18:44

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