Category: The Secret History of Words

The Secret History of Words – Episode 1

Have you ever considered where certain words or phrases come from? I’ve always been curious as to the origins of such things and whether its the writer in me or the amateur historian I love going behind the scenes and learning a new dimension to words and phrases that I’ve been using all my life.

The study of word origins is more formally known as etymology (not to be confused with entomology – the study of insects!) and involves not only understanding how various languages shaped and changed words, but also a bit of sleuthing as you often have to weed out the common folklore that has grown up around some words and phrases.

It was suggested at a meeting of the Sudbury Writers’ Guild this fall we include a “Word of the Day” (or month) in the newsletter and I’ve decided to run with that but with the added twist that I’m going to dig into the origin of the word or the history of the phrase.

For the inaugural entry I randomly choose the word Doom. Maybe it had something to do with the gloomy weather outside my window as I researched this article in November. Coincidently there’s a connection between the words doom and gloom, but more on that in a minute. We often use the word doom to mean something awful or bad is going to happen. Someone is sent to their doom. Or someone might exclaim “We’re all doomed!”

It wasn’t until I actually looked up the word “doom” for this piece that I realized there was more to the word. The origin of the word comes from old Anglo-Saxon English word dom for “law, judgement, condemnation”. A book of laws in Old English was know as a dombec.

Okay, now this is starting to make sense. Doomsday is literally judgement day. So where did the expression “doom and gloom” come from?

For help with this I turned to Gary Martin’s ever useful website The Phrase Finder ( Gary reports that the phrase “doom and gloom” is not as old as we think and can be traced to the late 19th century in the US where examples of it turn up in newspapers in reference to politics and financial stories. For it to enter common usage it needs something to elevate it and bring it before a wider audience. Gary’s research pinpoints the rise in popularity of the expression to a musical stage production from 1947 called Finian’s Rainbow by Harburg and Saidy that was later turned into a film in 1968 starring Petula Clark and Fred Astaire. In the play a leprechaun named Og repeatedly used the phrase as a lament.

“Doom and gloom… D-o-o-m and gl-o-o-m… I told you that gold could only bring you doom and gloom, gloom and doom.”

You can watch Tommy Steele as Og here on YouTube:

Have a suggestion for a word or phrase that you’d like to see featured? Drop me a line.