I just read a snippet of folklore that tells me "a dream of grasshoppers means that something is confusing you."
I can't argue with that. But I'm pretty sure that the thing confusing me would be "why am I dreaming about grasshoppers?"
The fascination with dreams and their interpretations is common to every culture and to every period in human history. From ancient mythologies to world religions, from regional lore to classic literature, from occult mysticism to modern psychology, dreams are universally familiar to all, and yet never fully understood by anyone.
Even the word dream is somewhat mysterious in that its origins are surprisingly vague.
The Old English use of the word (from citations dating back to 975) suggests meanings of "joy, pleasure, gladness, mirth, rejoicing" and "the sound of a musical instrument; music, melody; noise." It isn't until Middle English (around 1300) that we start seeing the first evidence of dream meaning "a vision during sleep"; even so, language historians are fairly certain that this meaning must trace back to the oldest of English -- although there are no known citations to prove it.
As I said, somewhat mysterious (just like dreams themselves, you might say).
For a word of uncertain provenance, dream has certainly well-established itself over the past 1,000 years, and today takes up a remarkable amount of space in the English lexicon.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, there are no fewer than 150 derivatives, compounds and phrases that are rooted in the word dream.
The earliest of these appeared before 1050 and included glee-dream ("the delight of minstrelsy"), man-dream ("human joy; loud mirth"), and orgledream ("instrumental music").
By the end of the 13th century, the "vision during sleep" meaning had become primary and we began to see such terms as dreamer ("one who has visions in sleep; a visionary; an idle speculator") and dream-reader ("one who reads or interprets dreams"). In the mid-1500s, there were not only dream-readers, but also dream-doctors ("those who profess to interpret dreams").
From 1515, we find citations for an expression you might guess is much more recent: beyond one's wildest dreams.
A hundred years later, dream terms emerged that haven't enjoyed the same longevity -- e.g., John-a-dream ("a dreamy fellow; one occupied in idle meditation") and out-dream ("to expel by dreams"). But certain dream forms of the 17th century have survived quite nicely -- e.g., the noun daydream and the past-tense verb dreamt.
After a span of 800 years (1000 to 1800), in which some 50 dream words are known to have entered the English language, there was a surge of nearly 60 dream terms to appear during the 1800s, including dream-child ("a child seen in a dream; an imaginary child"), dream-while ("the apparent duration of a dream"), dreamlet ("a short or brief dream"), dreamage ("the stuff of dreams") and the still commonly used dreamland, daydreamer, dreamlike, and pipe dream.
Since 1900, there have been about 50 more additions to the list of English dream language -- notably dreamlessness (first OED citation 1905), sweet dreams (1908), the American dream (1916), dream team (1925), dreamboat (1947), dreamscape (1959), dream-sequence (1959), dream ticket (1960), dream on (1962), in your dreams (1986), and dreamcatcher (1991). It would seem that our language does indeed bear out our timeless fascination with dreams, dreaming and everything dreamishly dreamlike.
I'm not sure if that's an observation to be qualified as good, bad or indifferent, but I must admit to a bit of feel-good optimism from a related observation: in the extensively thorough OED, with its 150-plua dream forms, there are precisely a mere 16 terms rooted in the word nightmare. So, sleep well and sweet dreams.
Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.