Monday, September 24, 2007

Nightmare



Sharon/Old Mission Peninsula:
I have been wondering about the origin of the word nightmare. My mother used to compare it to a frightened rider clinging for dear life to a runaway horse, unable to make the animal turn or slow down. Is that where the word came from?

This is another case of history eventually producing two words with identical spellings, but coming from totally different sources. When you look up the -mare segment, you find mare-1 and mare-2.

Mare-1 comes from an Old English word meaning horse. Mare-2 comes from
various Germanic cognates meaning a malevolent female spirit. Nightmare is built on the latter root. The nightmare would pounce upon the sleeping person’s chest, thus producing a feeling of suffocation. This would lead to distress and fright, the hallmarks of a nightmare.

Medieval stories are filled with night-visiting demons who had sexual intercourse with their victims in order to perpetuate the demon race. The incubus was male, while the succubus was female.

SIDEBAR: Succubus, the Swiss Goth-metal band

SIDEBAR: Incubus, an American alternative rock band


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