Do life and work in late winter seem especially sluggish? As though, if life were an orchestra, you were not the concertmaster or even the oboe but merely the second timpanist, stuck back in the corner beating dull drums slowly? This incessant tedium… it’s enough to make one throw a tantrum if one weren’t so listless. It’s like being a sailor on a becalmed boat.

Or, more to the point, being a sailor on a becalmed boat is like it. You know how we tend to get words for internal states – mental and emotional dispositions – from words for concrete physical things? Well, guess what. Here’s one that goes the other way. Doldrums referred first to mental dullness, drowsiness, and depression; it was later transferred to the areas of the ocean where one could be becalmed (and thus in the doldrums as far as mood and activity went, too).

Doldrum comes in turn from dull plus an ending imitative of tantrum (a kind of deliberate opposite formation, like craptacular formed from spectacular). And guess what about dull (drum roll, please)… It’s also a word that referred to mental state first and then later to physical nature! Yes, that’s right; it comes from and old Germanic root meaning “foolish” or “stupid”. From there it extended to sluggish spirits and blunted moods. And only from there, and a half a millennium after the first instance we have recorded of it in English (but still before Shakespeare), do we see it used to refer to knives, light, etc.

So doldrums, with its echo of ho-hum, really is a perfect word for the late winter blues, when the superintendent of your spirits is become slumlord, and perhaps, like a bored and stagnating sailor, you get into the rums and just plop upside-down (plop upside-down? dold… just lie on your back in your state of stupefaction and look at it).

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting doldrums.

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