Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In honor of the great leader we lost far too soon, I wanted to repost a piece* on the origin of a word whose legacy is indelibly his: dream.
When I say Martin Luther King, what comes to mind? Chances are, “I Have a Dream” does. It’s incredible. For me, and I would imagine so very many more, the word dream instantly vibrates with this champion of civil rights.
Langston Hughes (“dream deferred”), Hamlet (“perchance to dream”), America (“American Dream”), or the moniker of an R&B artist and producer (“The-Dream”) are also evoked, but dream and MLK have forged a most intimate association in my cultural and linguistic mind. And perhaps it is frustrating, too, to say the least, if the Doctor’s legacy is left so deeply associated with the vision—and not its full materialization.
Whence this dream? It turns out it needs a bit of interpretation.
In the 13th century, Middle English woke up with a drem, referring to a “vision during sleep,” as the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) so succinctly summarizes.
However, Old English already had dream, meaning “joy, jubilation, music, or minstrelsy” (ODEE).
Historical linguists have not established with any certainty a relationship between the Middle English drem and Old English dream. The former may be related to German’s trügen (deceive) and the Old Norse draugr (apparition) via the West Germanic *draugmas, which the Online Etymology Dictionary glosses as “deception, illusion, phantasm.” The Sanskrit druh- (injure) and Avestan druz- (lie) are possible cognates. Walter Skeat proposes a possible ultimate root in the Proto-Indo-European *dhreugh, “to deceive” or “lie,” and points us to the Sanskrit droghas, with the unusual meaning of “a crafty wounding,” as well as the Old Persian drauga, denoting “deceit” or “lie.”
The Old English dream develops out of Old Saxon drom (mirth, noise), related to the Old Norse draumr and possibly rooted in the Greek thrulos (noise, shouting). Eric Partridge offers the Old Frisian cognate dram as a “(shout of) joy” to help us connect the sound and the merriment.
The native Old English words for “dreaming” were mæting and swefn. The latter meant “sleep,” joining many other Indo-European languages in using the same word for sleep as for those mental midnight screenings.
So, what happened? We have two words similar in form and sound but quite different in meaning. I think the Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes the possibilities well:
Either the meaning of the word changed dramatically or “vision” was an unrecorded secondary Old English meaning of dream, or there are two separate words here. OED offers this theory: “It seems as if the presence of dream ‘joy, mirth, music,’ had caused dream ‘dream’ to be avoided, at least in literature, and swefn, lit. ‘sleep,’ to be substituted ….”
So, sleeping dream is avoided, I suppose, until festive dream falls out of use, making room anew for dream dream.
Martin Luther King’s dream, however, seems to come about comparatively late. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “Dream in the sense of ‘ideal or aspiration’ is from 1931, from earlier sense of ‘something of dream-like beauty or charm’ (1888).” (How did we express this concept before?) This year corresponds with the publication of James Truslow Adam’s Epic of America, in which, apparently, Adams coins “the American dream”:
But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
I still have a dream, indeed.
*Original post has been lightly edited for clarity and style.