You begin to feel anxiety, the things you are seeing, hearing, watching, are going wrong, spinning out of control and you are powerless. Trapped as a spectator, or a participant you run from monsters, fall off cliffs, watch loved ones die, relive regrets… then you wake up in a cold sweat with a gasp, and blink. Once. Twice. Was it real? And then you thank god or whomever that it was just a dream. We would call this a nightmare, to be more exact.
But that word, nightmare, ever wonder why exactly we use it to describe a bad dream? Night makes sense… mare? What symbolism or context to we ascribe to mare in reference to our dreams? I’m not sure if the answer is obvious to you, dear readers, but I have never given the word much thought until earlier this day.
Edgar Allan Poe uses the word “Night Mare” in his short story “The Black Cat,” separating the two words. This separation ascribes a new meaning. The night mare was considered to be a dream horse, who would trample their victims in their sleep, inflicting nightmares. (see: ) This was the 19th century understanding of the word.
Going back, the origins can be traced to older words, Old Norse, Old English… In germanic folklore, the NIght Mare is a spirit or goblin that rides on people’s chests to give them bad dreams.
I suppose, the point I am making is the wonder of a changing language. A word adapts and morphs. It is fluid, and affects our understanding of life, and is affected by our changing and adapting societies. A single word, and its multiple meanings, can provide insight to the cultures of the past. When analyzing historical documents, we are told to forget the contemporary meaning of certain words. “Education” meant something slightly different in the 19th century than it does in our own. We need to be careful when we read. I think this advice holds true with our contemporary literature as well.
What other words do you know of have strange origins?
p.s. see http://www.shmoop.com/black-cat-poe/night-mare-symbol.html for a little more info on the NIght Mare