nightmare
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.

  1. specifically, her breaking her cheating boyfriend’s windows with a baseball bat in 1990; c.f. CNN’s “When he’s a cheat, revenge seems sweet“[]
§2029 · April 2, 2008 · Tags: , , ·

6 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: nightmare”

  1. Conor says:

    I had been under the impression that the "mare" was related to "merry," in the sense of to cut short or to please. I guess I made a horrible conflation between ideas of succubi and the etymology of "dream."

    Interesting that the focus is widely on a physical sensation of oppression rather than just emotional distress.

    While I don’t disagree that the "mer" root of "to bore, to harm" could adequately explain "nightmare," I would think the basic etymology of "mare" (marching, trampling) is completely sufficient. But perhaps I’m just having a hard time shaking my original conceptions of the word "nightmare," too.

    Funny that the word "steed" is directly related to the word "mare" in German. Now, where did the last 20 minutes go?

  2. Ben says:

    The etymology of “mare” is marching/trampling? You mean the “mare” as in a female horse? I wasn’t aware it had such etymological origins… It’s simply the feminine gender of the Old English “mearh,” from the proto-German *markhjon.

    Mare in that sense is oh-so tenuously related to “merry” in the phonetic sense via the Frisian merrie, but the “merry” you’re referring to comes from the Old English myrige.

    I’m interested in this connection in German between “mare” and “steed”; I can’t seem to find any good information on it.

  3. Conor says:

    Well… I tend to be very liberal when it comes to etymological interpretation, but I think EtymOnline backs me up here. Maybe I’m being too phonetic there, but it makes sense to me that horses would be named after their primary function, that of locomotion with a military flavor.

    As for the mare/steed relation, I was really going by the fact that the German word is Stute I think this is pretty obviously related to "stud," which by variability is the same as "steed."

    I hope I don’t trip your spam filter with the links…

  4. Ben says:

    I suppose maybe you’re right. The eventual root of the Breton/Welsh march is the P.I.E. *mereg, which leads eventually to the Old Frankish *markon, which strikes me as suspiciously similar to the proto-German *markhjon cited above.

  5. Herkko Vuorinen says:

    Hello, I have a related note about the word nightmare in the Finnish language. The word is ‘painajainen’ in Finnish. Related to the words ‘painaa’, to press, to print; ‘painava’, heavy. ‘paino’; weight.
    Interestingly, although there is no etymological relation here per se, the culture historical/folkloristical similarity is interesting.

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