Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The word dream has been found — even with this modern-looking spelling — in Old English texts dating back more than a thousand years. But back then, the word didn’t mean the same thing: dream in Old English meant “joy, noise, or music,” two of which are likely to keep a person awake — not exactly conducive to (modern-day) dreaming.
Through Old and much of Middle English, one’s nightly dreams were called swefn, a word that originally meant “sleep” but evolved to refer specifically to dreaming. (This shift from a word meaning “sleep” to one meaning “dream” is common among many languages.)
But the English language — and indeed the history of Britain — was in large ways sculpted by conquests. Scandinavian adventurers, in particular, were prone to taking their axes to British civilization and language.
Old Norse had the word draumr to describe the illusions one sees while sleeping, and they brought the word with them. It’s likely that the similarities between draumr and the English dream influenced the change in the word’s meaning in English. For example, people might have avoided using the word dream in the old sense to avoid confusion with draumr. Then, because the word was used less often, its use began to shift to align with draumr.
Regardless of the exact linguistic course, the written record of the 13th century —during the Middle English period — shows dream being used in its modern sense for the first time. And it didn’t take too long for the old “joy, noise, or music” sense to disappear completely.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now