Today I Discovered The Origin Of The Word ‘Nightmare’

Today I Discovered The Origin Of The Word ‘Nightmare’
Image: Detroit Institute of Arts

The word ‘nightmare’ is instilled in us from a very young age – usually the first time a bad dream causes us to scream out for a parent or guardian. But have you ever wondered what a ‘mare’ actually is?

A mare is a female horse, of course (ahem). But what do horses have to do with bad dreams?

The Nightmare, a famous 1781 oil painting by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, depicts a menacing, spectral horse (see above). However, it is thought that its presence in the painting is a visual pun.

The etymology of the word actually evokes a different kind of mare:

The word “nightmare” is derived from the Old English “mare”, a mythological demon or goblin who torments others with frightening dreams. Subsequently, the prefix “night-” was added to stress the dream aspect. The word “nightmare” is cognate with the older Dutch term nachtmerrie and German Nachtmahr (dated).

It is thought the phrase also has links to the Scandinavian word mara; a mythological term referring to a spirit sent to torment or suffocate sleepers.

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