Let's Talk Origin: The Creepy (or, Funny?) Story Behind the Word 'Nightmare'
In this edition of Let's Talk Origin, Club1BR discusses the myths and superstitions that gave birth to the word 'nightmare'.
How often do you wake up in the morning with an uneasy feeling in your stomach? How often is your peaceful sleep interrupted by bouts of screaming and crying? I get nightmares once in a while. Sometimes a dog is chasing me (sometimes, a crocodile!), sometimes a loved one passes away, and sometimes I find myself naked in a public place!
I always wake up shaking, but also grateful that it was just a dream. Why my brain thinks I would ever forget to put on clothes when leaving the house is something I have never understood! But this is one of the nightmares that a lot of people often get, and the human brain clearly works in weird ways. We have many unsubstantiated, irrational fears that have no logic in them. Nightmares prove that, so does the origin of the word ‘nightmare’. You guessed right, it’s time to talk origin!
The word ‘nightmare’ originated from the Middle English word ‘mare’, which meant an evil female spirit that was thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers. While a ‘mare’ means a female horse today, it clearly had a very different meaning in pre-modern times. This meaning was steeped in superstition and different versions of it can be found in other cultures. Evil spirits, demons and goblin-like creatures were believed to sit upon the chest of innocent sleepers and disrupt their peaceful sleep by causing scary, daunting visions.
There were many ways to keep these evil spirits away. You could plug up the keyhole, get in bed backwards, place a pair of shoes with the toes facing the door, or keep something that’s made of steel on your bed! All of these were believed to keep the mares at bay, because surely nightmares entered our sleep through the keyholes on our doors! Jokes aside, the origin of the word ‘nightmare’ shows the age-old human tendency to find answers and solutions in myths.
In German fables, there are many other evil, nocturnal spirits in addition to the ‘mare’. They were called alp, trud and mart, among other names. If things had gone differently, we might have called nightmares nightalp or nightmart, though nightmart sounds a lot like a supermarket that is open at night! But if you think about it, ‘nightmare’ sounds a lot like a horse that roams around at night, and we don’t seem to mind it! So I believe, nightmart would have done a pretty good job too!