- n. A very bad or scary dream
The definition of “nightmare” needs no further explanation, as it’s a phenomenon I think most of us are familiar with. The inspiration for this particular Wednesday’s Word came from a rather odd source. I happened to read an article about Teri Garr1 and into my head popped the scene from Young Frankenstein says, in half-German/half-English, “You were having a nachtmare…”
I began to wonder to myself, funny movie aside, what the real origins of “nightmare” are. The word itself conjures up images of some terrible steed metaphorically trampling one’s dreams, but were its origins really that mythological? Or is a poor transliteration of some old German word, perhaps nachtmehr (to name one fictive example).
In short, it is mythological, but it has nothing to do with horses. The word itself was made “official” in Samuel Johnson’ 1828 A Dictionary of the English Language, where it is defined as a “morbid oppression during sleep, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast” (491). It is composed to two constituent parts: “night,” which is self-explanatory, and “mære,” which was the Old English word for a demon (incubus), which was thought—either literally or metaphorically, I do not profess to know—to sit on the chest during sleep, and so cause the bad dream in question.
Mære traces its way back to proto-Germanic, and indeed all the way back to Norse, the mara of which was a female wraith that could float into one’s room under doors or through keyholes and then sit on—or “ride,” but not in the sexual sense—the vulnerable sleeper. This relationship is seen more clearly in the Scandinavian terms for nightmare:
- Norwegian: mareritt, meaning “mare-ride”
- Danish: mareridt, meaning “mare-ride”
- Icelandic: martröþ, meaning “mare-ride”
- Swedish: mardröm, meaning “mare-dream”
The word might even be proto-Indo-European, from the root mer, meaning “to rub away” or “to harm.”
The German word for nightmare, incidentally, seems linguistically different from either the English word or its Scandinavian roots. Albtraum is a combination traum, or “dream,” and “alb” (or “alp”), which is a magical being, mostly likely an Elf. The connection to “nightmare” becomes more apparent when we learn that the old form of albtraum, or “Elf dream,” is albdruck, which means “Elf pressure” and comes down to the same old story of a supernatural being sitting on one’s chest during the night.