Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The history of boredom in a time of lockdown

Here's a thread on the etymology of Boredom and its earlier ally, Sloth, that I wrote as a Twitter thread. It's fascinating that boredom wasn't present in English until the eighteenth century. Its etymology is a little peculiar, too.

Bored as a border collie? Get ready to glaze over. Here’s a thread on boredom & English words for a ‘disinclination to action’. First curious thing to know is that a ‘bore’ doesn't exist in English until 1766. /1

Google N-gram for Boredom, Laziness, and Ennui from 1600-2012
‘Boredom’ doesn’t emerge in English until the 19thC with Dickens’s ‘chronic malady of boredom’. The etymology of ‘bore’ is obscure; it may have arisen to describe ‘ennui’, by analogy of being persistently irritated by something; ie with the persistence of boring a hole /2 

‘To bore’ is recorded in 1768 when Earl of Carlisle said: ‘I pity my Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen.’ In the Oxford English Dictionary, there is also a use in 1535 to ‘bore one’s ears’, which surely offers the best parallel. /3

So, weren't people bored before the leisure heyday in the 18thC? Yes. Boredom is many-faceted. An ironically vibrant semantic field has lassitude, inertia, torpor, sluggishness, inactivity, indolence, enervation, disinclination, lethargy, apathy, listlessness /4

The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us of a term ‘boreism’--‘the practice of being a bore’. George Eliot (hoorah!) wrote: “The male could assert his superiority & show a more vigorous boredom" in an uncanny anticipation of mansplaining. Mansplaining=stultification? Yes, indeed /5

Is boredom in Old Eng. rare? We imagine there was a lot to do to survive daily. But a plethora of terms exist: unrotnes (tedium); æmelnes (weariness); asolcennes (indolence); aswindan (enfeebled, languishing in spirit); æswind (torpor); slæcfull (slackful) /6

‘Wlæc’ is a fav word, meaning lacking in spirit or energy. It's modern ‘wlak’; that is lukewarm, tepid, lacking spirit, languid. A fab OE word is ‘bæftansittende’ (to be sitting behind still), translating Latin ‘reses’--dormant, stationary, idle, immovable /7

Important is ‘Sloth’, from Old Eng ‘slæwð’ (ME ‘sleuðe’). It's the 6th of the 7 (or 8) capital sins (‘acedia’ or ‘accidia’—‘without care’—in Latin). Chaucer’s Parson says: ‘Accidie maketh hym heuy’. It means idle thoughts, or being lazy in worship of God /8
From a tree of Acedia, says 15thC Desert of Religion, comes ‘Gruchyng alswa & drerynes, Langour, wanhope...spredes on ilka syde’. It's dreariness, languor, carelessness, neglect, oblivion, forgetfulness, stupefaction, ‘wanhope’ or ‘insufficient faith’ /9
London, British Library, Harley 3244

The 14thC Piers Plowman, shows Sloth as hideous: 'Then came Sloth all beslobbered with two slimey eyes… What I tell with my tongue is two miles from mine heart. I am occupied each day holidays and other With idle tales in the alehouse & sometimes in churches' /10
John Walton of Osney Abbey translated Boethius in 1410, where he basically says about a slothful person, ‘Call him a lazy ass’: He þat useþ sleuthe and ydelnesse And will noght done no werkes profitable, Thow myght hym calle a verrey asse expresse. /11
Slothfuls end up in hell's snake-pit. As Morrissey sang: ‘The Devil will find work for idle hands to do’. Or, in St Jerome's cheery words, Fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum: Do something so that the Devil always finds you busy /12
London, British Library, Harley 603: The Harley Psalter
The moral of the story is don’t be an asolcena (‘sluggard’), but definitely practice rest, mental relaxation, and idleness because then you get time to think (and read the OED for no particular reason) /13

All these Old English words on ‘sloth’ with impressive subtleties and manifold expressiveness are in the fabulous & searchable Open Access oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk, Open Access bosworth.ff.cuni.cz, and quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-engli /En

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