The Etymology of Dream

We can trace back to the mid-thirteenth century the use of the word dream to denote the visual and aural sensations that pass through us when we sleep – the sensations that confound us, and sometimes scare us back up through the threshold of consciousness, and headlong into real life. We need only move two degrees of separation, passing through the Germanic variant traum, and on into the Western Germanic draugmas, to arrive at a word defined as “deception, illusion, phantasm”. This latter cognate and its meaning suggest how we came by such contemporary phrases as “Tell him he’s bloody dreaming”, where to dream is to “delude” oneself. Draugmas can in turn be connected to the Old Norse draugr, defined as “ghost” or “apparition.” Like ghosts through mirrors – that is how we pass through these phases of language, and lately, I cannot sleep.
One must forgive a fellow dreamer. Forgive him for the wry smile that creeps over his face as he ponders why this word dream – for so many centuries used to refer to sleeping sensations, waking illusions, and untouchable apparitions – why this word finally becomes a synonym for “ideal” or “aspiration” in the early twentieth century. Nineteen Thirty-One. Between two world wars. That is the year dream is first recorded as being used in this way. I try not to see in this progress the tendency for humanity to mislead itself. Almost as if out of spite. As if we had it coming to us. An insidious ruse. Taking its time across centuries. So that we wouldn’t notice what we were doing to ourselves. Not until it was too late. An etymological umbilical cord connects our aspirations to apparitions, our desires to deceptions, setting our collective unconscious up to feel ever so gradually let down by how things really are. The evolution of a word has wrapped our troubled sleep in wishes – the type of wishes that are as certain to come true as each new breath is to follow the one that preceded it.
If language would only allow us to once again think of a dream as merely an alternate state of mind, a state influenced by involuntary sensations; if we could all agree to reserve that group of letters -‘d’,’r’,’e’, ‘a’, and ‘m’, in that order- for denoting just that, and not let them simultaneously refer to those things we invest most hope in attaining or achieving; then maybe we could all sleep easier. Maybe I would be able to speak freely again – without this harboured sense of all words being shape-shifters for as long as we dare to breathe life into them.
My throat is heavy with unwanted knowing. A knowledge of no utility. Life was lighter before I knew where to find them. Those phantasms that glow in the darkness of sleep even though they are black. Lighter before I knew how to trace them back to the happiest waking days. Before that night I awoke, feverish, to the sight of a moonbeam. A moonbeam thin as a paper cut. Shining through a crack in the curtain. Shining across a pillow where no head was resting. 

When I couldn’t sleep you would tell me to just say it to myself until I dozed off. As long as it takes you said. Whatever gets you through while waiting for the ropes to fray. Waiting to be cut adrift. Tonight I turn it over and over again, in my wide-open mind, in the silvery dark, just like you always told me to: life is but a dream.