Cody Jones


Reviews, thoughts, and miscellany. Less focused than 'Projects.'

Gloom versus Gloam

What is Gloom? What about Gloam? Are they related? 

We have to do a bit of housekeeping first. As I see it, there are roughly only four acceptable to good sources from which one could easily look up the etymology of the word ‘gloom:’ Wiktionary, Google Dictionary, the Online Etymological Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Google etymologies (i.e., where you simply type a word into Google and let the search engine inform you of its make up in a drop-down) is sourced from the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, though formerly it used Collins COBUILD. Its etymology of “gloom” helpfully states “late Middle English (as a verb): of unknown origin.”

The Wiktionary for “gloam” only has one citation, which is to the OED. Its proffered etymology is entirely un-cited, and does not appear on any relevant page of the OED. However, a similar etymology does appear on the Online Etymological Dictionary, though the latter does add, in stark contradiction with the Wiktionary entry but in support of the OED entry that “gloom” is “not considered to be related to Old English glom (sic) "twilight" (see gloaming).” The Wiktionary entry for “gloom” has a totally un-cited (but interesting) etymology back to the Proto-Indo-European “*gʰel-,” “to gleam,” which is perhaps entirely correct if one starts with OE “glóm,” “twilight” and doesn’t bother with anything after. It also mentions Norwegian and Scottish cognates. The page’s only citation is of Thomas Carlyle.

The OED entries on ‘gloom,’ ‘gloam,’ and related words ‘glooming’ and ‘gloaming’ have not been updated since the first edition of the OED in 1900. In all instances, the OED claims that “gloom” is “apparently unconnected with Old English glóm twilight,” adding as a side note that ‘gloom’ in the sense of “darkness” does not have an attested use before its 1645, when John Milton writes of a “shady gloom” giving “day her room.” Despite the avowal that the words “gloam” and “gloom” are not etymologically connected, the development of “gloam” in the sense of “twilight” from the Germanic root glô- is glossed as a “not difficult” etymological traces, and can be compared with “gloom” in the sense of “darkness.”

This seems to contradict the note, made in the entry on “Gloom,” that any sense of the word meaning ‘darkness’ lacks “examples earlier than the 18th cent.”  Furthermore, on the very same page where “gloam” is compared with “gloom” the OED adds:

The vowel of the modern gloaming is anomalous, as Old English glómung should normally become glooming. The explanation probably is that the ó was shortened in the compound ǽfen-glommung(as the spelling seems to show was actually the case), and that from this compound there was evolved a new noun glŏmung, which by normal phonetic development became Middle English glǭming, modern English gloaming. In the literary language the word is a comparatively recent adoption from Scottish writers; but it is found in the dialect of Mid. Yorks.
It turns out the OED is slightly careless with its claim that “gloom” lacks a sense of darkness before Milton. It is only the noun that lacks such a dimension; the verb “to gloom” has carried the sense of making cloudy, which one could easily link to ‘darkening,’ since at least 1000CE. 

To reiterate, “gloom’s” etymology is traceable back to Old English glúmian, through to ME gloum(b)e meaning “savage,” though also to a Middle German “glûm,” “muddy” or “fradulent” and Middle Dutch “gloom” meaning “foggy” (and perhaps cf. Norwegian ‘glom’ meaning a “thin membrane”) and being distinct from OE “glóm” which is “not etymologically cognate, as it belongs to a different ablaut-series.” 

Quite simply, the OED claims that “gloom/to gloom/glooming” are etymologically distinct from “gloam/to gloam/gloaming.” They are absolutely unrelated.

Until we get to definition C of the noun ’gloom,’ that is, whereunder the OED states it means “twilight” and goes on to add the curious note that it is “Possibly another word, connected with gloaming n.] Obs.,” with a single citation from 1699, a full 54 years after Milton. That citation is from one Lady Anne Halkett (1623–1699), whose memoirs of the English Civil War brought her some fame during her life (to say nothing of saving the life of James II), and who practiced medicine in Scotland.

Likewise, and perhaps more interestingly, definition B of the verb “gloom” simply says “gloam” (again, remember, on the exact same page that says they are entirely unrelated), and has three attestations. The first and only relevant one is by none other than, get this, Edmund Spencer, in his “Epithalamion” from 1595. (“Ah when will this long weary day haue end,..Long though it be, at last I see it gloome.”)

It would seem that three writers had a hand in mixing these words up into Glo(a)om. So, the words, while etymologically unrelated, do not seem to be definitionally so. Some kind of homonymic convergence, perhaps brought on by regional spelling variations, perhaps by the fact the words were always associatively connected (dark, twilight, sorrowful, shade, murky), has occurred. This would explain, quite easily, why “gloom” and “gloam” have a Venn diagram of definitions. 

This doesn’t explain the Wiktionary page. Turns out, Wiktionary has a full record of, well, everything. The user who provided the etymology made it up, as far as I can tell. He has no official training in linguistics and says that “I have been studying the Old English language for many, many years now, but only as an amateur. My real-life degree is in Business and IT.” While I cannot get more specific than that, I regret to say that in this one instance, it appears that the only source of evidence of OE “glóm” being related to “gloom,” apart from conflations, mis- or alter-spellings, or coinages, is this one user, who is not even properly trained (though generally no offense or condemnation of amateurs). It is, as they say, a folk etymology.

That’s all.