Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 11, 2019

We Deal with a Dim, Dreary, Drizzly Day

Once upon a midnight dreary….

We’ve had some dim, dreary, drizzly days recently in southern California. That’s not unusual in January; this is our rainy season.

bodie house m vincent 1260 680

While rain was dripping off the eaves, dropping on the ground, adding to the dankness and dimness, it occurred to me that all those “D” words that came to mind have been in our language a long time: They all had predecessors in Old English. Spelling and pronunciation have changed, but English used them a thousand years ago.


I investigated, to make certain my impression was correct. I started with an excellent-sounding word, “dreary,” because I knew for certain it was present in Old English, spelled drēorig. To speak it, summon up a slightly guttural “gh” at the end: DRAY-ouh-reegh!” Dreary!

I’d forgotten that a thousand years ago the word could also mean “gory” or “bloody,” as well as sad. It shows up in a number of old poems, including Beowulf, in that sense of “bloody.”

dreary river brad nixon 7705 680

In one scene, Beowulf leads the warriors to the edge of Grendel’s mere, where any number of their comrades have been dragged to doom by the monster.

wyn-lēasne wudu   wæter under stōd / drēorig on gedrēfed.

The woeful wood, water beneath it /  bloodstained and swirling*

A Word in Indo-European Language

Drēorig came to English via ancient Germanic. Before that, the original root word was all the way back in Indo-European during the Neolithic era: dhreu. Dhreu carried several meanings, including flow, drip and drop.

More New/Old Words

What I discovered was that a number of those other dreary, drizzly D-words ALSO spun off from dhreu as thousands of years passed and humans extended their vocabularies in innumerable languages.

Take “drop” and “dropping,” like that rain falling outside. There were several Old English “drop” words, including just plain drop, dropa and dreopan. Then the trail leads back through Germanic, Old Teutonic and that selfsame dhreu root word.

snowy pass brad nixon 7515 crop 680

It’s always risky to make assumptions about whether words that look or sound similar are actually related, but in this case, “drip,” has a similar heritage. We had drippan in Middle English, but NOT in Old English. Instead, we got it from all those Norse and Danish invaders in the north of England (the Danelaw and all that). Once again, it stemmed from German and back to prehistoric dhreu.

Our word “droop” also followed almost exactly the same route to be in our vocabulary today.

“Dribble?” Spun directly off “drip” in a process known as alteration. Think of it as a form of onomatopoeia, and that’s close enough for us amateurs.

rainier brad nixon 7550 crop 680

Some Dead Ends

Ah, we’re having fun now, but it gets better! I encountered two interesting etymological dead ends.

First: “dim.” An excellent word for a dark, rainy day, as well as for people who don’t agree with you. It was around in Middle- and Old English, but not very well attested. Working backwards, it’s there in Old Frisian, Old Norse, Old High German and possibly Old Teutonic, but the trail ends there: There’s no sign of it in Indo-European. Maybe another onomatopoetic sound one of our ancestors simply invented, and it stuck around.

Finally, “drizzle.” It DID derive from dhreu, carried through various changes in German into Old English as the barely recognizable drysnian. SOUNDS like drizzle when you say it: DRIZ-nee-ahn. But the path stops at that point, and “drizzle” doesn’t show up again in English until the 15th century, several hundred years later.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word dropped out of use, only to be re-adopted into English from either Norse or Danish, which both had versions of the word.

gnarled tree brad nixon 131 680

Back to Dreary with Another Poet

I’ve written before about my high school English teacher, Mrs. Drake, with great admiration. Every kid should have at least one teacher who inspired them. Mrs. Drake was one of mine. She knew something about the power of the spoken language, and often read aloud to us. A bit over the top, perhaps, but, yes, she was darned good.

One of her favorites was “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe, which always resonates with teen-agers. It’s a vivid memory: Mrs. Drake standing in front of the class, enunciating ….

ONCE, upon a MIDnight DREARRRRRY …. While I PONdered… WEAK and WEARRRRY….”

Poe recognized “dreary” as an effective and evocative word, as did a nameless poet a thousand years before him. Language changes, but is always powerful.

And, if you’re pondering a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore on some dank, dreary day and you drowse a bit — that word also began with dhreu.


What about any readers who also know Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Swedish or other Germanic languages? Any words you recognize here that are still similar in your languages? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019. One photograph © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission.

*My translation of Beowulf lines 1416-17, with assistance from Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, A New Verse Translation, W. W. Norton, New York, 2000. Sources included The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2000; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd Ed., Frederick Klaeber, D. C. Heath, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1950.

P.S. I found an error in the OED. It cites the wrong line number for the passage from Beowulf under “dreary.


  1. We certainly are accustomed to a lot of drearyweather here in northern England accompanied by much drizzle !

    Liked by 1 person

    • LET IT BE SAID — I hope to my credit– that I did NOT put any judgmental statement in my piece, suggesting that as a cause for so many terms for dark and drear. Although it occurred to me.
      Both our nations have enough to deal with now, without me inciting an “our weather’s better than yours” spat.
      But I’m happy to have a native point it out. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I knew you’d get to Poe eventually; I just didn’t realize how many twists and turns there would be in the road.

    I often ponder how difficult I find reading something (like this post) when I have no idea how to pronounce the words. I recently discovered I’d been badly mispronouncing an English word; I was astonished by the size of the gap between my mental pronunciation and its actual sound. That’s one reason I found your reading from Sir Gawain so fascinating; it was good to hear the words while following them on the page.

    Your footnote about an erroneous citation in the OED tickled me. The fact that it involved Beowulf only made it better. Expertise is admirable, wherever it appears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment gives me pause. Maybe it’s a mistake to carry on too much about poetry in, essentially, another language, and one read by extremely few contemporary people. The etymology’s one matter, but presenting lines of poetry that are more or less indecipherable might not be fair to readers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure I agree. The indecipherable has to be presented before it can become decipherable, let alone entertaining or an intriguing window into the past.

        The best analogy I can think of is botany. When I began to become interested in our native plants, I faced the same issue. Looking at a page detailing Chamaesaracha coniodes, for example, I’d stick with the common name for lack of any idea how to pronounce the scientific name. Only after I began meeting other ‘plant people’ who pronounced the names properly did I begin to get the hang of it. Sometimes my high school Latin was enough, but most of the time it wasn’t. Now, after a few years, I can reference Helianthus and Asclepias with the best of them, although the taxonomists’ willingness to pile on vowels still confounds me.

        Granted, Sir Gawain isn’t going to land on everyone’s bookshelf, and not everyone’s going to swoon over readings from it. But think of this: you’re the only person I know who has expertise in such areas, and the fact that confronting such different literature is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

        There’s that word again: expertise. It’s been much on my mind because I recently finished reading Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Before the book was published, this piece in Foreign Affairs provided a look at its argument.

        Nichols, by the way, is a five-time Jeopardy! champion as well as being a prof at Harvard and the Naval College. I’ll bet he can name several meanings of Dhreu.


      • I’ll decline the “expert” rating, with humble appreciation. I’ll read the Foreign Affairs piece. An intriguing notion. I worked with a large number of people who did — and do — have expertise in a variety of fields. We certainly do live in a world full of “information” promoted by people who fall short of expertise, including hordes of the clueless, prejudiced or those posing as experts to promote an agenda.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Edgar Allan Poe was one of the greatest writers in American literature. Most people probably think of him as a writer of rather bizarre detective and horror stories.

    But that would be a superficial analysis. Properly understood, Poe’s stories are actually a trip deep into the human psyche. He focuses on multiple levels of exploration of the mind.

    Then there’s his poetry. Powerful, unforgettable images combined with great alliteration. An American master.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not everyone entirely agrees, but at the very least, it would be a big mistake not to know at least a few of his works. I spent a lot of time reading Poe, and may go back there.


      • The doubters should read Harvard professor Richard Wilbur’s analyses of Poe’s works. It really opens one’s eyes (and mind) into what Poe was really writing about.


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