Will’s Word of the Week: “doldrum”

9 February 2010

It now being well and truly wintertime, the cold and the chill in Cambridge can either serve to inspire the studious to press on toward the greater glories of spring, or leave them wallowing in the frigid academic doldrums.

Singularly “inspired” by a recent, and maliciously stubborn, head cold, this columnist has been enduring a bit of a doldrum (yes, singular), of his own, which brings us not-so-coincidentally to this week’s word.

A “doldrum” was once defined, as the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) reminds us, as a “dullard; a dull, drowsy, or sluggish fellow.” As such, its first appearance in recorded written English, in this now-obsolete form, comes to us in the Sept. 7, 1812 edition of a publication called the Examiner, with the line, “A doldrum is, we believe, the cant word for a long sleeper.”

But the April 13, 1811 edition of the London-based Morning Herald contains the first use of the plural form, “I am now in the doldrums; but when I get better, I will send you.”

Interestingly, a slight shift in meaning had occurred, as the OED defines the plural as “a condition of dullness or drowsiness; dumps, low spirits, depression.” We can hardly blame slang for changing, of course, as that is part of its nature.

As for the actual etymology of the word, it is old, derivative slang from “dull,” which may come from an old Germanic root word (“dwel-“) meaning, “to be foolish.”

George Gordon Noel Byron, aka Lord Byron (1788–1824) gets the credit for using the word in its more becalmed, nautical sense for the first time in 1823 in The Island with the line, again thanks to the OED, “From the bluff head where I watch’d to-day, I saw her in the doldrums; for the wind was light and baffling.”

From this more generalized sense it took on a more specific meaning, to the region near the world’s equator where the trade winds tend to nullify each other, to the annoyance of sailors, who, well, use sails still.

More cerebrally, to be in a doldrum can mean that one is “intellectually nonplussed,” or, to borrow a handy cliche, that one has hit the proverbial brick wall: mentally, of course.

I sincerely hope that if you are in such a state, you can get out of such a doldrum, or doldrums, as soon as possible.

If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk.