Saturday, March 21, 2009


First, in the 15th century, there was the adjective 'tedious' from the latin 'taedium' (weariness, disgust). Lydgate uses it apologetically, (I quote, loosely, "I won't say anymore about her sorrow lest it prove tedious...") and Tindale uses it the same way in translating Acts, 24.4: "Lest I be tedeous unto thee . . .". Some of the citations in OED are amusing: Tillotson, in one of his sermons (1694)says, "I may be tedious but I will not be long." And in J. Mitford's Letters and Reminiscences (1845): "Johnstone ain't a drinking man nor a wife-beater, but he makes her a tedious husband." The word has also taken on, as early as 1509 the sense of our modern word 'boring' ("so when the father is tedious and old." It wasn't until 1692 that the abstraction, 'tedium', began to appear. That word sufficed until 1852, when Dickens in a stroke of his usual genius not only coined the word 'boredom' but identified it as a 'malady' (in Bleak House 2.28.253). But that word didn't appear out of nowhere; before there was boredom there was the noun (roughly the same as 'ennui') and verb 'bore' which appear more or less simultaneously and unacountably out nowhere around 1750--"etymology unknown" says the OED. The first person to be 'bored' was Byron who remarks in Don Juan (1823) that "Society is now one polished horde,/ Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored." The word 'boring' (i.e. the practise of annoying or wearying others) didn't show up until 1868 when it was identified as a "fine art."

Why wasn't the English languaage content to make do with the French word 'ennui'? After all, look at all the other words we have happily taken over from that language.
'Ennui' perhaps is too abstract, too generalized: a kind of spiritual emptiness or melancholy or, as the OED says, "The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack interest in present surroundings or employments." A bore however is someone who bores--and here the sense of being drilled or bored into is probably relevant; boredom can be a malady that one suffers from, but it can also be a form of suffering that one inflicts on others. Either way, word or thing, boredom is quintessentially part of the modern condition.

1 comment:

  1. When the first of Job's comforters speaks to him, he asks, "If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be griefed? but who can withhold himself from speaking?" (Job 4:2). "Grieved" is translated from the Hebrew "til'eh," meaning "you will tire" or "you will be weary." Perhaps what the comforter meant to ask wass "Will you be bored?" The translators of the King James Version didn't have access to the word "bored." In any event, Job 4:2 is a great line.