These days phrases like "grim times" get bandied about quite a bit. This week we’ll take a look at a few grim words.
The Dutch verb gluren meant to leer. In the 1300s it (or one of its Scandinavian siblings) made its way into Old English as gloom, initially a verb meaning to look sullen or displeased. The adjective gloomy showed up in the 1580s & the noun version of gloom, meaning darkness or obscurity, first appeared in writing in 1629.
Though we don’t know its roots, the Latin word luridis meant pale yellow & ghastly. By the 1650s it showed up in English as lurid, meaning ghastly or horrible, adding the meaning glowing in the dark by 1727 & the meaning sensational by the 1850s. Though I would love it if lurid were somehow related to the term yellow journalism, no such link seems to exist.
The Scandinavian tongues all had some version of the word grim (grimm, grimmaz, grimmr, grym), meaning furious, dire, painful, savage or cruel. Because of some similar-sounding words meaning thunder in Old Church Slavonic & Russian, etymologists have posited that grim’s grandmother words started out as an imitation of the sound of thunder. Grim made its way to Old English in the 1100s along with its sister-word grima, a noun referring to a ghoul, goblin or specter. Sadly, grima didn’t live very long, possibly taken out by some sort of linguistic grim reaper. Sources suggest that the term grim reaper didn’t show up until 1847, though one could argue that the grim reaper had been doing his job for centuries with no recognition.
The Greek word for black was melanin & the Greek word for bilewas khole. Because depression was seen as a problem with the body’s humors, specifically pinned on black bile, the word for overpowering sadness was melancholia, or black bile. This word made its way through Old French to English by the year 1300, to become melancholy.
Back in the 2nd century BCE, some folks we now call the Maccabees got fed up with intolerance & against all expectations, rose up to fight their mighty Greek oppressors. Though their story has its triumphant elements, the outcome wasn’t good for the Maccabees, known thereafter as martyrs. At some point in Medieval Latin the story was told as the dance of the Maccabees, or Machabaeorum. This term made its way through Old French to land in English in the early 1400s as macabre, meaning involving death or violence in a strange, frightening or unpleasant manner.
So, are these mostly grim times? Melancholy, lurid, gloomy, or macabre times? Or something else altogether?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Etymonline
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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