I’ve been wandering about much of the day in a stuporous state brought on by the dank, muggy weather, and I’ve just learned the perfect word for it thanks to an article by Betty Kirkpatrick (former editor of the Chambers dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus) at The Caledonian Mercury:

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. […] 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 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.

(I’ve added italics for clarity; there are none at the linked page.) Here‘s the DSL entry, for those who want more; there’s no OED entry, so it’s pure Scots it’s in the OED under dwalm (see below). Thanks, Eric!


  1. See also ‘dwaal’. Afrikaans, I am told,

  2. It’s in the OED under dwalm, translated as “A swoon, a fainting fit” and occurs in Yorkshire and Northumberland as well. It is cognate with dwell.
    Fave quotation: R. Nicoll, Poems (1842). “Last Sabbath, as I sang the Psalm, I fell into an unco dwaum.” (Unco is short for uncouth.)

    (From the poem Janet.)

  3. It’s in the OED under dwalm


  4. I knew this word, because my brothers and I have, over the years, tried to come up with lots of creative words to describe our father’s absence seizures. (The reason we do this is the highlight the irony of the fact that he denies that he actually has such seizures. This is in spite of their being classic in presentation and as plain as day to anybody who has witnessed more than one or two. Yet my father, a medical doctor, is extremely defensive when anyone suggests aloud that he has mild epilepsy. And The Idiot is his second-favorite book.)

  5. People are really something.

  6. Agnosia is an amazing thing. I just watched the movie Churchill’s Secret, in which we see Winston’s agnosia for his stroke-induced impairment: at first he literally does not know that anything is wrong.

    English and Scots words in dw-.

  7. Spaced out? Distracted?

  8. It’s funny – I get a mild sense of phonotactic unease from the lesser-known dw- words, even though dwarf, dwindle, dweeb and Dwayne demonstrate that it can be followed by a full range of vowels.

  9. David Marjanović says

    it can surely be followed by any vowel

    The more closed rounded ones – GOAT, FOOT, GOOSE, and the no longer rounded STRUT – seem to be missing.

    Of course that’s a common constraint on /w/, but not in English.

  10. @Lazar

    For what it’s worth, I do too, half wanting to pronounce it /jw/, yet feeling uncertain when the word’s not well enough worn on the ears for any given pronunciation to feel obvious. I definitely say /jwindle/ and /jwell/, and probably /jwarf/ and /jweeb/, but /Jwayne/? /jwarrow/? (If the last is a word outside of Tolkien.)

  11. Greg Pandatshang says

    Hmmm, I seem to be in one of those dwams right now …

  12. @Elessorn: what do you mean by /j/? The sound at the start of “jungle”?

  13. @bathrobe has it, dwam looks like spaced out…

  14. @Eli Nelson

    Sorry, that was very notationally cell-phone lazy of me. Yes, affrication to “j” as in “jungle”, exactly. So: /ʤwɛl/, /ʤwɔːrf/, etc. “Dwell in joy” alliterates for me. (Though the lip-rounding on the /w/ is much weaker than in other /Cw/ combinations, like /sw/ or /kw/.)

    Same with “tw”, mutatis mutandis, as well as with “tr” and “dr”–at least in my dialect, though I know it’s not a universal change, even in the US.

  15. I, for one, pronounce the /t/ in “tree” substantially the same as the one in “tea.” But then I grew up speaking a dialect that says “srimp” and “srunk.”

  16. Why does the word “doldrums” come to mind?

  17. My idiolect is on the conservative side on this point: I don’t affricate /t/ and /d/ before /w/, and only slightly before /ɹ/ – not nearly to [tʃ]/[dʒ].

  18. More on dw-, with special reference to doubly grimmed German zw-.

  19. “Last Sabbath, as I sang the Psalm, I fell into an unco dwaum.” (Unco is short for uncouth.)

    “Unco” is not short for “uncouth” (or at least doesn’t have the same meaning). It means “unusual” or “remarkable” (or “unusually”). He did not fall into a rude and uncultured dwam, he fell into an unusual one. Either he doesn’t normally space out during the psalm, or he spaced out in an unusual way this time.

    On pronunciation: the spelling “dwaum/dwalm” seems to suggest rhyming with “warm” but my parents pronounced it to rhyme with “dram” or “ham”.

    On a related but distinct state, I always liked descriptions of people thinking intently and unapproachably as being “in a brown study”.

  20. Scots unco and English uncouth are both semantic divergences of Old English uncuð ‘unknown’ > early Middle English unc(o)uth ‘foreign, alien’.

  21. I was just quoting the OED in a hurry. It did seem odd.
    Here’s the poem, Janet, in its entirety. Robert Nicholl wrote romantic poetry in an antiquarian Scots vein, and died of consumption at age 23.

  22. Could “fall in a trance” be another way to describe it? Or is “trance” an even deeper state of stupor?

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