Greetings Word Nerds! Last night as I was saying goodnight to my children, my nine-year-old son piped up with the question, “Mum, what is a mare?” One of my other children replied by saying it was a female horse, which prompted the further question, “Then, why do we call bad dreams nightmares?”
Cue silence. Have you ever noticed that children become mini philosophers at bedtime, pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything—including the English language? Mine certainly do. Anyway, I had to confess I didn’t know and that we would look it up in the morning. And so here I am. 🙂
The word has its origins in the 13th Century, when the word mare referred to “an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation.” Pleasant thought, isn’t it? It wasn’t until the early 1800s that it was first recorded as being used in the sense of ‘any bad dream’ rather than referring specifically to the suffocating feeling, and over the ensuing two centuries we have expanded its use even further by using it to refer to any distressing experience, or even as a form of hyperbole in order to emphasize just how awful something was/is—”The traffic this morning was a nightmare,” or “Sorting through this mess is going to be a nightmare.”
So there you have it. All that is left now is for me to decide how to share my new knowledge with my son in a way that will not conjure up images to inspire . . . well . . . nightmares!