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Friday, June 20, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Sweven

Midsummer Day is traditionally observed June 21 or 24, though here in Ontario it feels as though winter is barely behind us. My thoughts turn of course to Shakespeare, and in particular to the word "dream". 

You would think that the word must date back to Anglo-Saxon times, but in fact "dream" is surprisingly mysterious. There was an Old English word "dream", but it meant "joy, pleasure, rejoicing" and also "music or song" (we have already seen with the word "glee" this connection between joy and music). The related verb also meant "behave in a drunken manner", but I shall gloss over that quickly.

It is possible that these Anglo-Saxon words morphed into "(events you) see in your sleep", but as these latter usages of "dream" didn't crop up till the 1300s, the connection is tenuous.  The Anglo-Saxons used the words sweven, meting, or i-sight for what we call dreams.

Another question about "dream" is: are the past forms "dreamt" or "dreamed"? Both seem to have existed since the Middle Ages. "Dreamed" is now much more common than "dreamt" in all varieties of English, but "dreamt" continues to plug along, less commonly used in American English than in other varieties. I'd be interested to know (in the comments) which one you use, and if it depends on whether you're saying "Last night I  [had a dream]" or "In my wildest imaginings I never would have [thought] I'd be a ballerina".

As for nightmares (like me being a ballerina), they have nothing to do with horses. "Mare" in this case was an Anglo-Saxon word for an evil spirit who was believed to suffocate people in their sleep.

But speaking of equines, here's a cute video from Dutch National Ballet, showing a day in the life of "Bottom" in Sir Frederick Ashton's charming Dream.

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  1. Hello,

    I doubt ESL ever teaches "fancy" stuff. Whence, "dreamed" throughout (unless one is careless about shocking and openly revealing one's "ESL status").

  2. Always dreamt; dreamed sounds awkward. I'm originally from New England and had an English mother which may have something to do with it. Another example: since my youth in the U.S. it has always been neighbour etc.

  3. Always dreamt, too. I'm an Aussie living in Canada, so perhaps its an Antipodean thing :-)

  4. When I first read this post, I thought to myself "I use dreamed." But when I went to make a few sentences, I realised that I don't! I use dreamt - in both cases. I teach ESL as well, and I always talk about what my students will hear - it's not "fancy", it's what we say!

  5. Modern English dream is a semantic loan: its phonology comes from OE dréam, but its meaning comes from Old Norse draumr.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.