The original doom wasn’t only about last judgments.
This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, a long-running warning against humanity’s own self-destruction, to two and half minutes to metaphorical midnight. It hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1953, after the US and Russia both tested H-bombs. Oy.
Nuclear weapons, climate change, rising nationalism, and yes, Donald Trump, are all pushing us closer to our own ruin, according to the Bulletin. So, let’s fritter away our remaining precious moments with a little etymology: Why is it called doomsday?
The crack of “doom”
English has been long concerned about doomsday. The term is found in Old English Gospels dating back to the late 900s as dómes dæg, literally “day of judgment.” Dómes is the genitive case (i.e., possessive) of dóm, whose meaning wasn’t originally apocalyptic. In Old English, dóm could refer to a “law,” “statute,” “decision,” or “sentence,” especially a condemnatory or punitive one.
Shakespeare gets credit for the modern sense of doom for “death,” “destruction,” or some other “final fate” in his Sonnets, published in 1609. As the Bard closes “Sonnet 14”:
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.
If only armageddon were so poetic.
Doomsday, as noted, refers to the Christian concept of Judgment Day, when it’s believed God will judge all humanity at the end of the world. And so the association with “the end of the world” helped push doom towards its current notion of “annihilation.”
Shakespeare also gets prop for early verbal usages of doom, meaning “to condemn or consign to some fate,” in the 1590s. Doom and gloom goes back to the late 19th century, though popularized by the leprechaun, Og, in the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow.
The Old English dóm, with cousins across the Germanic languages, is related to déman, source of deem. Originally, the verb meant “to pronounce a judgment,” softening over the centuries to its meaning of “consider” or “regard” today. Dóm is also relate to the noun-forming –dom suffix, which shows up in words like freedom, kingdom, or martyrdom. Etymologically, this —dom carries a sense of “position” of being free, say, or a martyr.
And the idea of “position” points us to doom’s deeper roots: the Proto-Indo-European *dhe-, “to set” or “put.” A judgement, as we might imagine, is kind of official “setting down” of some decree. This root was far from doomed: While it took a long and winding way to get there, *dhe- shows up in do, duma, fact, theme, and so many other words that we’d be listing them until, well, doomsday.
Which, as we saw, has been deemed closer than we may like to think.
m ∫ r ∫