Note: I attempt to notate some signs, so I would suggest you watch the video if you want to be clear on what the sign looks like. Also, fs is short for fingerspelling.
Hello, welcome back! I was unsure about labeling this as an ASL Ponderings because this is more focused on linguistics and analyzing the etymology of a word. So… I guess this is half ASL Ponderings, half linguistics? Today, I want to discuss a specific word: NIGHTMARE. The reason why I wanted to discuss this is that often, ASL signers don’t really think about the etymology of a word or the history of how that word came into being. For this specific word, it’s very interesting. Many will sign this word this way: [night fs:m-a-r-e], or [bad dream]. Either way, it’s simple. However, [night fs:m-a-r-e] is not exactly linguistically correct. [bad dream] does work linguistically though. Personally, I grew up signing it this way. [nightmare] The reason why this is coming up is because I was chatting with someone recently, and I realized that I don’t know why I sign it that way. I wondered if it was an actual ASL sign or if it was just something my family used, so I posted in the ASL That! Facebook group asking what their signs were for this particular word. Many were either of the previously mentioned signs. One in Canada had a very interesting way of signing it. (Go to 1:32 in the video to see this sign.) I did think of a few ways of why I sign it this way. I will propose two theories where my sign for nightmare came from at the end, but I want to explain a little more about the word itself first.
I was struck by one comment that said [night fs:m-a-r-e] doesn’t make sense because mare is related to horses, and horses have nothing to do with dreams or the word itself, nightmare. Hmm. Is mare from the origins of horse? No, not necessarily. In Old English, horse was originally either mȳre or mere, the feminine forms of mearh (horse). That’s where mare came from for when referring to an adult female horse. While looking at the etymology of nightmare, it comes from Old English mære. It’s the name for an evil spirit or goblin that will sit on people’s chests while they sleep, causing them to have bad dreams. It’s old Germanic, Slavic, and Northern Europe folklore. Back then, people would use the mære lore to explain that they had bad dreams last night due to the evil spirit sitting on them. Later on, night was added on to emphasize the dream aspect of it, rather than the folklore. Thus, it’s become the word we have today – nightmare.
Now that I’ve expanded and explained what the etymology of nightmare is, I want to propose my theories on where my sign came from. The first one isn’t really connected to what I previously explained. It’s possible that it came from the sign for dream. Dreams are minor, while nightmares are more intense and strong dreams. Thus the sign’s adding more fingers to show the intensity of the dream. That’s one possible theory. Onto the second. I think it could possibly be from the sign for dream and the sign for evil being combined to become nightmare. (See the video at 3:35 to see this visually.) So I think that’s one possibility. What do you think? Do you agree with my theory, or do you think I’m way off base? What do you think of that sign for nightmare? Let me know! I hope you enjoyed this little linguistics lesson about the word nightmare. Don’t forget I have a Patreon and ko-fi. Social medias – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Thanks for watching, see you next time.
Some extra fun stuff – it’s mære in Old English, mare in Old Dutch, mara in Old High German, Old Norse, and Old Church Slavic. Here’s the wiki if you want to read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mare_(folklore)