While writing an answer to this question, I looked up the word ennui in the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary. (I'd give you a link, but I access the OED through my local library's proxy service, so it wouldn't work for you; if you have access, go to oed.com and search for "ennui" as a noun). Three senses are given. The first and third senses are normal dictionary definitions with the customary example sentences, but the second, in its entirety, is:

b. Personified.

What does this mean? I'm not asking about the word per se—yes, I know what personification is—I'm wondering why the word appears alone here, without elaboration or examples or a clue as to how it pertains to the rest of the entry.

A possible clue: Sense c ("A cause of ennui") is accompanied by four example sentences, the first two of which contain personifications of ennui:

1790 C. M. Graham Lett. Educ. 290 It would entirely subdue the dæmon Ennui.

1812 H. Smith & J. Smith Rejected Addr. 11 The fiend Ennui awhile consents to pine.

Have these two examples simply been attributed to the wrong sense, or is something else going on here? Does anyone have access to the print version to check?

  • I don't believe this should be considered a meta question, but if I'm wrong, please migrate it accordingly.
    – phenry
    Aug 12 '14 at 15:50
  • 2
    I think there's just some kind of typesetting error here. I just searched OED for personified within "labels", which finds dozens of entries such as fate. But they're not separate "heading" sections. To be honest, whilst I can see the sense of OED mentioning that things like month/season names, time, death, fate are often personified (because we do it so often), I don't really see much point in doing this with ennui, boredom, etc. It doesn't indicate a difference in meaning, it just tells you something about how it's used "syntactically". Aug 12 '14 at 16:28
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    @FumbleFingers I agree, in part, b:Personified should be followed by the 1790 and 1812 quotes (and perhaps the 1847 had ennui been capitalised). c concr[ete] Should be followed by the 1849 quote BUT the fact that both the 1790 & 1812 quotes do capitalise Ennui and both refer to some 'evil' thing (daemon/fiend) makes me think Ennui has at some time been personified in the same way Hope, Justice and Truth (etc) have been. but Ennui was perhaps considered an evil or miasma or blight caused by supernatural forces. 'Course, that could all be bollocks.
    – Frank
    Aug 12 '14 at 17:44
  • @FF Personification goes beyond grammar/semantics to throw open the psychology involved and the (in)adequacy of words to describe what's happening inside a person; it's more than a purely linguistic device. Psycholinguistics needs books not an explanatory note in a dictionary, but the OED does well to at least point out that this is an example. It probably helps some people. Though why they're reading works from 1800 in the first place ... Aug 12 '14 at 18:44
  • @Frank: I could be wrong, and it's always highly risky to stereotype groups of people based on age, nationality, historical era, etc. But my feeling is that the Victorians (in Britain - I know next to nothing of the US equivalent) were an exceptionally industrious & forward-looking people. Today many of us wring our hands and sympathise with young unemployed people who've "lost faith in life", and perhaps just throw in the towel. Many Victorians would have got agitated, seeing sloth/despair as corrosive mortal sins. Aug 12 '14 at 21:00

In the paper version of the OED (1979), senses b. and c. are on the same line, like this: b. Personified. c. concr. A cause of ennui. Then follow the 1790, 1812, 1847, and 1849 citations.

I presume the intent is to express that ennui means the same thing, "a cause of ennui", in both the sense of Personification and in the concrete sense.


As I was stumbling about in old 'poetry' I found this - Ennui Personified and other forms.

It's a poem by William Hayley Esq. A Charm for Ennui. A Matrimonial Ballad.

Snippet taken from The New Foundling Hospital for Wit: Being a Collection of Fugitive Pieces, in Prose and Verse, Not in Any Other Collection. With Several Pieces Never Before Published, Volumes 1-2, published in 1786, page 266.

A Charm for Ennui. A Matrimonial Ballad by William Hayley Esq.

And here is the OED1 printed version - OED1 and OED online are word for word the same.

Ennui v OED1 print

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