By Betty Kirkpatrick
Many Scots words are so fit for purpose, as they say in modern parlance, that it is difficult to find an adequate English translation for them. Such a word is dwam, usually to be found in the phrase “in a dwam”.
Dwam in this sense is often translated as daydream but this strikes me as a bit too poetic for dwam and not accurate enough. A daydream suggests, and is often defined as such, pleasant thoughts and fantasies indulged in while awake.
Dwam does not suggest anything so creative. If you are in a dwam you are not necessarily building castles in the air. Rather, the phrase suggests blankness. When you are in a dwam you may be thinking about something, not necessarily something pleasant, other than the subject in hand. However, you are just as likely to be thinking about nothing at all.
The other translation frequently given for dwam is stupor, but this is often defined as a state of near-unconsciousness and a dwam in the sense I am thinking of is nowhere as deep-seated as that. Furthermore, dictionaries frequently indicate that a stupor is often brought on by drugs or alcohol. Not so dwam. It does not necessarily have any connection with illegal substances, although the odd dram-induced dwam is not unknown.
Dwam, with the alternative spellings dwalm and dwaum, when it first came into being, was used to refer to a physical condition. Germanic in origin, it has associations with Old English dwolma, a state of confusion. As a verb it meant to faint or swoon or to become suddenly ill. It also meant to decline in health. As a noun it meant a fainting fit or a sudden attack of illness. In this older sense the notion of stupor was more relevant.
So how should be in a dwam translate into English? “In a reverie” is another possibility but reverie raises much the same problem as daydream. “In a state of abstraction” is quite apt but it is a bit of a mouthful. “Staring into space” and “lost in thought” both cover the situation quite well, but are not as concise nor as graphic as be in a dwam.
Should anyone be unsure as to the exact meaning of in a dwam do not worry. You will soon know. We will all be in one several times by the end of the election.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.