The text is based on Finkielsztein, M. (2021). Boredom and Academic Work. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 38-42.
What is boredom seems to be pretty obvious in our globalized world but do different languages and cultures actually understand it in the same way? Do the closest equivalents of the Anglo-Saxon ‘boredom’ in other languages have the same meaning? Below I attempt to answer this question by showing how boredom is defined in various languagues (especially in two linguistic groups: Romance and Slavic languages).
Certainly, nowadays there can be observed a gradual globalization and standardization of the meanings of various terms employed worldwide as translations of the Anglo-Saxon ‘boredom.’ Nonetheless, each of those words has its specific linguistic/cultural history, which, on the one hand, can be traced in dictionaries and on the other hand, is somehow kept alive in the language-users’ understanding of it. In some cases, the etymologies of the two words (i.e. of the word ‘boredom’ and its equivalent in translation) may be parallel, and yet both words do retain their specificities, at least to a certain extent.
In the light of the above and given that boredom is a multidimensional phenomenon, it is not too surprising to notice that different languages accentuate or share distinct qualities of the experience. I have selected a few instances to illustrate the point. In Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean, the terms for boredom highlight the meaning of having ‘nothing to do’ and being ‘not interesting’ (Sundberg and Staat, 1992, cited in Vodanovich et al., 2011). The Hungarian unalom, as László Földényi (2016) indicated, up to the eighteenth century used to mean ‘to be satiated with,’ implying ‘a state of having had enough.’ The German Langeweile (‘a long while’) and its Slovenian derivative dolgčas (‘a long time’) accentuate the time dimension of boredom. Originally, the word Langeweile was used in its literal meaning of time passing slowly, but in the 19th century, it fused with the French ennui and, consequently, included a sort of existential dimension as well (Silver, 2012). In translation, the Anglo-Saxon ‘boredom’ often embraces both mundane and existential facets of the phenomenon, and therefore carries a much more extended list of connotations. As Özge Ejder (2005, p. 4) noted, the Turkish sıkıntı means, besides boredom, also distress, trouble, difficulty, annoyance, worry, depression.
Similar phenomenon can be noticed in many Romance languages, where the terms for boredom have many different associations or where there are more than one term for boredom. In the languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula, we may find two major groups of etymologies that serve as the basis for translating ‘boredom.’ The first source is the Latin ab-horrere (‘to hold in horror’/’to abhor,’ Dalle Pezze and Salzani, 2009b), which is directly traceable in the Asturian aburrición, the Catalan avorriment, the Spanish aburrimiento, and the Portuguese aborrecimento. It accentuates connotations of hate (derived from the Latin odium), disgust (see the Spanish fastidio, the Portuguese fastio from the Latin fastidium, or the Portuguese nojo from the Provençal/Occitan enojo derived from the late-Latin inodiare ‘to hold in hatred’), horror, annoyance, fatigue (see also the Spanish cansancio), satiety (present in the Portuguese term), or even anger (in the Portuguese term, as well as in the Spanish enojo; Michaelis: Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa, n.d.; Diccionario de la lengua Española, 2001).
The second group of etymologies that some Romance languages employ to signify boredom is derived from the Latin taedium – hence, e.g. the Asturian tediu, the Catalan tedi, the Spanish tedio, or the Portuguese tédio (the Portuguese enfado shares similar meaning). These terms emphasize the existential dimension of boredom, i.e. its connections to depression, melancholy, spiritual displeasure, profound disgust.
Both meanings (mundane and existential) are also present in the Romanian plictiseálă (Dexonline: Dicționare ale limbii române, n.d.), the Italian nòia and the French ennui. The Italian and French terms, similarly to the Spanish enojo and the Portuguese nojo, originate from the Provençal/Occitan noja, enoja (verb noiare or annoiare) and used to have quite a different meaning. In Dante, the term noia signified pain and displeasure. The word ennui, which originated
from the 12th-century troubadour poetry, meant ‘profound sadness, sorrow, disgust’ (Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, 2018). It was ‘a form of moral pain particularly associated with the loss of a loved one’ (Goodstein, 2005, p. 109). In both Italian and French of modern times, we can see the dichotomous meaning of the terms used for ‘boredom.’ The Italian noia is defined both as a ‘sense of dissatisfaction, of annoyance, of sadness, which comes from lack of activity and idleness or from feeling busy in a monotonous thing, contrary to one’s inclination, such as to appear useless and vain’ and as ‘tedium, painful sense of the vanity of life, considered as the habitual condition or disposition of the soul’ (Treccani, n.d.). Similarly, the French ennui is defined in a twofold way as ‘moral weariness, impression of emptiness generating melancholy, produced by idleness, lack of interest, monotony’ (Larousse, n.d.) and, simultaneously, as ‘feeling of weariness coinciding with a more or less profound impression of emptiness, uselessness that gnaws the soul without a specific cause or which is inspired by metaphysical or moral considerations’ (Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, n.d.), ‘dejection caused by deep pain, profound distress … [n]ostalgia, regret for somebody or something’ (Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, n.d.).
As I was trying to demonstrate herein above, in the Romance languages there is a plethora of associations concerning boredom. Associations such as pain, melancholy, disgust, and annoyance signal a more profound dimension of the concept of boredom. To grasp the general significance of this conclusion, one can broaden the scope of the probe by checking the word ‘boredom’ in a few other languages. Slavic languages seem to provide a rich ground for this analytical pursuit.
The Russian term for ‘boredom’ skuka/скука is associated with quite a different set of notions. It allegedly originated from an onomatopoetic imitation of the call made by the cuckoo, which has connotations of repetitiveness and monotony (Wangh, 1975, p. 516). Because, in translations from French, skuka is to mean the same as ennui, it has received the extra meaning that the French word intrinsically carries, i.e. mental anguish and despondency (Gramota, n.d.). To illustrate the point, the Russian phrasal verb skuchat po/скучать пo, which means ‘to long for somebody/something,’ ‘think of somebody/something with grief, longing,’ does resemble the original meaning of ennui, brought to the fore in the poetry of mediaeval troubadours (‘to feel pain of yearning’). Interestingly, the same relation is evident in the Polish [obsolete] nudzić za kim, po kim (Skorupka, 1967, p. 522) and the Ukrainian nudha za kim/нудьга за ким (Словник української Мови, 1974, p. 452). Another interesting connotation of the Russian term under consideration
is the verb dokuchat/ докучать (see the Polish dokuczać), meaning ‘to bother, trouble, pester.’ This meaning is strikingly present in the Polish phrasal verb nudzić o coś (a derivative of nuda ‘boredom’): ‘to bother somebody obtrusively about something, if one wants something from somebody’ (Bańko, 2000, p. 1049). In a sense, if it was to be construed literally, one could probably still guess its actual meaning by means of a wordplay ‘to bore for something’ by analogy with ‘to ask for something.’ The Polish nuda (similarly to the homophonic expressions in Slovakian and Czech) is believed to be derived from the Latin adjective nudus meaning ‘nude, bare, stripped’ and the Latin verb nudo ‘to lay bare, to strip’ (Latin Dictionary, n.d.). The connotations pertaining to the Latin words, such as being bare/stripped, being void of something, experiencing emptiness/loss of something, might resonate with native speakers of Polish, Slovakian and Czech when they think about boredom. Nuda is also suggested to be derived from the Russian nuża/нужа meaning ‘misery’ (Bańkowski, 2000, p. 325), which evokes the association with a shortage of something. The contemporary Polish verb nudzić has been known since the 14th century, initially in the version nędzić, which meant ‘to oppress, harass, torment, emaciate, weaken’ (Malmor, 2009, p. 291). In addition, it may be connected with the Bulgarian nudja and the Proto-Slavic nudit, meaning ‘to coerce’ (Boryś, 2005, p. 368). This connection accentuates the notions of constraint, dutifulness, and the compulsory, forced character of boring activities.
Another association present in the Polish concept of boredom is that of disgust and nausea. It dates from the 16th century (Mayenowa, 1988, p. 563) and, despite ‘nausea’ being still mentioned as semantically related to the term nudzić in some modern dictionaries (Bańko, 2000, p. 1049), it seems to be preserved actually only in the word nudności (nausea, queasiness). Until the first half of the 20th century, the Polish term nuda was also associated with melancholy (see the obsolete Polish verb nudnieć ‘anguish of the heart;’ Linde, 1994, p. 327), but it seems to have lost this meaning definitely by the end of the 20th century.
To sum up, the Slavic terms for ‘boredom’ are connected mostly with ‘a shortage of something,’ ‘monotony,’ ‘coerce.’ In contrast, the equivalent terms in the Romance languages have connotations rather of ‘annoyance,’ ‘disgust,’ and ‘melancholy.’ The latter set of associations used to apply (in a limited way) to the Slavic terms as well, but now they are, for the most part, obsolete.
In the light of the above argumentation concerning the complicated details of etymology and semantics, it should be clear that native speakers of various languages may understand ‘boredom’ somehow differently. As far as English is concerned, it is noteworthy, in this respect, that the word ‘boredom’ originated from verb ‘to bore’ – meaning ‘to pierce, perforate, make a hole, make something hollow’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.; Pease, 2012, p. 2). As Allison Pease noted, ‘the modern conception of “bore” is recorded by Oxford English Dictionary in an exchange of aristocratic letters written in 1766 and 1767 complaining of chamber bores, presumably men who talked so tediously as to metaphorically pierce holes in their listeners and render them hollow’ (Pease, 2012, pp. 2–3).5 Therefore, the term ‘boredom’ has no particular ‘innate’ connotations with acedia, melancholy or ennui. This existential dimension of boredom is present in many Romance languages, but English has separate terms for it: ‘tedium’ and (transplanted from French in the mid-17th century) ‘ennui.’ Consequently, the English ‘boredom’ seems to be associated with lack of interest, fatigue (see ‘weary, weariness, wearisome’), lack of content (emptiness, making something hollow), lack of pleasure/satisfaction (see ‘dull’ in Online Etymology Dictionary,n.d.). As Edward Peters summarized, ‘boredom never acquired in English that rich set of connotations already at hand for Rousseau, Buchner, and Baudelaire’ (1975, p. 508).
Summing up, users of various languages may understand boredom in a slightly different way, accentuating different aspects of the phenomenon. Boredom, therefore, is a highly context-dependent phenomenon and the language/cultural dimension should be taken into account not only in researching boredom, especially in the case of international comparisons but also in translating a research from one language to another.