Apparently the word "nightmare" has only been used in the sense of "bad dream" since c. 1829. Before then the term referred to the agent causing the dreams—a mare < mera, mære 'goblin, incubus'.

What word or phrase was used earlier? I'm interested, in particular, in the meaning "bad dream" as opposed to "creature causing bad dreams" or "medical condition; pavor nocturnus". I'm interested in all time periods: Anglo-Saxon/Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and (modern) Modern English.



I found swefnes wóma 'sleep-noise' as a possibility. OEME defines this as "dream-tumult, vision", and I can find a few uses in the corpus.

Alain Pannetier suggests wódan dreáme, though this seems to have the primary or exclusive sense of "fit of madness". Dreám/dreáme seems to mean 'song, music' rather than 'dream'.

Middle English

The MED has:


drēming/drēm/dream/dremme: Apparently not attested with the meaning "dream" but more like "vision" (in sleep); included nightmare-type visions or dreams.

night frai/night drede 'night fear'

incubus: Alain Pannetier suggests this was used from the 18th century on, though this suggests (to me) the agency rather than the condition. It seems to have been used as far back as 1561 in the sense of "night terror", not quite the sense I hoped for.

slēp: Typically meaning "sleep" but also meaning "dream, nightmare".

bicche doughter: Apparently used to refer to a nightmare by at least one source. The modern reflex is obvious, and suggests that this was never its primary meaning.

Ephialtes/ephialtes the more: oosterwal suggests the former and the dictionary mentions the latter. Seems to primarily refer to the cause rather than the condition.

Modern English

Rhodri suggests ill dreams for mid-19th century.

Of course from the early 19th century on nightmare became common and soon pushed all others out of use except for poetic.

  • 3
    Unfortunately the obvious (to me :-) example turns out to be mid-19th century: J M Neale's translation of Te lucis ante terminum starts the second verse with "From all ill dreams defend our eyes." The corresponding latin would literally be "night phantasms."
    – user1579
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 0:57
  • @Rhodri: Interesting. Of course the Latin seems to be the same sense as the OE versions of night mare, as an actual (fantastic) creature.
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 16:10
  • 1
    This question wouldn't be complete without this picture: The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 19:02

3 Answers 3


One possibility could be "wodan dreame".

Before getting to this point I'd like to add that whereas the spelling "nightmare" is indeed recent (see the corresponding Google ngram), more archaic spellings are reported in the OED; viz "niȝt-mare" (1290), "nytmare" (1340) and "Nyghte Mare" (1440).

Leaving aside older spelling of "nightmare", I also came across an article on Google books suggesting that when preceded by "wod" or "wodan", then the dream turned out to be a nightmare...

This is in line with Wodan's main domains of death, war and afterlife. The article oldest quote is circa 890 and there are also quotes from Ælfric of Eynsham. Unfortunately the pages after 161 are not available from Google books.

Then, starting with the 18th century the Latin world "incubus" was in use. But that's not Old English any more I'm afraid. It's still used in Italian (under the form incubo) actually.

  • Very useful, thanks! (+1) From what I can find searching for wódan dreáme or wōd dream, though, it seems to be more waking madness than a frightening dream. Lewis has under "wōd" 5. (a) Of the wits: deranged; of frenzy: insane; of the flesh: unreasoning; of the world; disordered, chaotic, mad; of noise: tumultuous; ~ drem [OE wōd drēam] a fit of madness, a frenzy [cp. woden-drem n.]; (rest of entry snipped)
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 15:54
  • @Charles, I added "incubus" in the answer as a 17th till 19th century predecessor to nightmare. Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 16:09
  • @Alain Pannetier: But surely that was used in the sense of nightmare I was trying to avoid, that of a female monster causing distress?
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 16:15
  • Not quite. The original meaning is that of a demon taking advantage of the sleep of their (female) victims to seek sexual intercourse. Incubus means they were "on top" whilst "succubii" were under (and for men). This was a very serious belief recognised by the church. Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 16:23
  • @Alain Pannetier: I'm actually familiar with the precise meaning of the creature (monsters are a hobby of mine) -- the point was that it was a creature rather than a state of mind.
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 16:31

As another contender for what nightmares were called before it got its current meaning I proffer:


Etymonline's entry for ephialtes says: "nightmare or demon that causes nightmares, c.1600, from Gk. Ephialtes, name of a demon supposed to cause nightmares; the ancient explanation is that it was from ephallesthai "to leap upon," but OED finds "considerable" phonological difficulties with this."

This entry leaves some ambiguity whether or not 'ephialtes' was used to describe a bad dream or was specifically the name the demon believed to be responsible.

Websters Online dictionary has information from the 1913 and 1828 editions. From the 1913 edition we read: "1. The nightmare. Date 'Ephialtes' was first used in popular English literature: sometime before 1321." From the 1828 edition we get: "[Noun] The night-mar."

By using the definite articles before 'nightmare' and 'nightmar', Webster's Dictionary implies that 'Ephialtes' refers to a specific thing, namely the demon believed to cause bad dreams.

"A Dictionary of Hallucinations", by Jan Dirk Blom, has considerably more information about terms used to describe nightmares and other human perceptions; excerpts of some entries are provided. On page 128 we find a definition for 'Daymare': "Daymare-Also known as 'ephialtes vigilantium'. The term daymare is indebted to the Old English noun mare, which means hag or goblin."

The definitions of 'mar' and 'mare' (male and female love-phantom) are found on page 317. Both of these entries reference a book by William Heinrich Roscher (1845-1923) entitled, "Ephialtes, A pathological-mythological treatise on the nightmare in classical antiquity."

Finally, on page 357, there is an extended entry for 'Nightmare': "Nightmare-Also known as 'ephialtes nocturnus', dream anxiety attack, REM anxiety dream, REM-nightmare, and D-nightmare... ...In 1830 the Scottish physician Robert MacNish (1802-1837) qualified the nightmare as follows: 'Nightmare may be defined [as] a painful dream, accompanied with difficult respiratory action, and a torpor in the powers of volition... The affection, the Ephialtes of the Greeks, and Incubus of the Romans, is one of the most distressing to which human nature is subject.' "

From these entries, it appears that 'ephialtes' is used in a clinical sense, where it is differentiated between 'ephialtes vigilantium' and 'ephialtes nocturnus'. Also, there is evidence that 'nightmare' was used in a clinical sense; it does not say if 'nightmare' was used informally to describe a bad dream.

Etymonline's entry for nightmare says: "late 13c., 'an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation,' compounded from night + mare 'goblin that causes nightmares, incubus,'... ...Meaning shifted mid-16c. from the incubus to the suffocating sensation it causes. Sense of "any bad dream" first recorded 1829; that of "very distressing experience" is from 1831." [emphasis mine]

Although, as the original question reports, the first recorded use of 'nightmare' for 'any bad dream' was in 1829, the meaning shifted in the mid 1500s from the Incubus to the distress 'it caused'.

From ngrams.googlelabs.com we can compare the usage of 'ephialtes' with 'nightmar' between 1800 and 2000:

enter image description here

It is clear from the following two images that 'nightmare' is, and has been, in much wider use than 'ephialtes' and 'nightmar':

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Your answer is a bit oddly formatted, and so much italics is hard to read...you seem to have lots of non-trivial information here, it's difficult to pull out.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 1:31
  • @Billare: I've reformatted the answer and taken out some of the superfluous verbiage from quoted text. Hopefully the changes make the answer more readable. Also, the graphs are interesting.
    – oosterwal
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 12:56
  • Great work, oosterwal! It's much easier to comprehend now.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 13:05
  • 1
    Interesting. I agree, it does look like Ephialtes was largely a medical term by the late 18th century. It seems that this sense developed some time in the hundred years up to that point, because the 1685 medical text "The London practice of physick, or The whole practical part of physick", has a three-page entry on the affliction (pp. 408-410) without using the term Ephialtes once. Interesting clue to common use: "(vulgarly call'd the Incubus or Nightmare)" -- that is, in the late 17th century both terms were informal but there didn't seem to be a formal version. ("Night-mare" was also used.)
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 13:26
  • It's definitely used in the sense of 'suffocating sensation' rather than 'bad dream' or 'creature causing bad dreams'.
    – Charles
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 13:28

A little late, but nonetheless:

The word "dream" was used for both pleasant and unpleasant dreams. It is so in Middle English as well:


  1. (a) A vision experienced in sleep, a dream; a nightmare; a prophetic dream;

"Ephialtes" was used as nightmare as well, but it also meant the demon that caused it, so I don't think it classifies to your query.

Old English drēm, as mentioned before, didn't seem to have the same meaning as today, or it had a second meaning that hasn't been recorded. The words swefn and gesihþ seem to have meant "dream". Swefn originally meant "sleep", as other etymologically cognate nouns in other languages, Lithuanian sapnas, Old Church Slavonic sunu, and the Romanic words (French songe, Spanish sueño, Italian sogno all from Latin somnium (from PIE *swep-no-; cognate with Greek hypnos;).

Old English had ælfādl (ælf "elf" + ādl "disease, sickness") which meant "nightmare", since they thought elves caused them.

Etymonline.com on Elf(n.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.