‘Depression’ – Where the Word Comes From and What it Means

PoetsIN is all about words. Whether they are written or spoken, they are fundamental to everything we do; empowering people who are struggling with their mental health through workshops and a safe community.

We use terminology and phrases about mental health day in and day out – but what of their origins? That’s why we are starting a series of etymology articles with the word ‘Stigma’; something attached to mental health and quintessential to our quest in speaking openly about what ails us.

The origins of the word ‘depression’ in English are at first blush, somewhat bland, unremarkable, even dull; in a word, depressing. Etymology looks at two things: the original meaning of the word and what the word has come to mean, how it has been used over time. The word, ‘awful’ transforms completely, from ‘full of awe’ or ‘awe inspiring’ to something ‘wretched’. Words like ‘depression’ undergo no such transformation. Sometimes we have to look to other forms of the word and track the meaning from the root word through the various uses of the word in that context.

In English Through the Ages, William Brohaugh reports that the word depression in the sense of being “sad” was in use by 1625 (150). [i] I should say too, that, as someone who suffers from chronic depression and has for a long time, I bristle at the notion that ‘depression’ is characterized as “sad.” In Brohaugh’s defense, his book is mostly a list of words and dates, so the gloss is excusable.  In any case, let’s put that aside for now and dig into the word a bit more.

The OED[ii] entries for “depression” and “depress” are instructive, with some coaxing and extrapolation, as we will see. The Old French, Latin and Italian forms are almost the same as the English, they are not nearly as entertaining as a Greek form might be, so I won’t bother listing them. What is more instructive, the very first, now obsolete use of the word is given as: “To put down by force, or crush in a contest or struggle; to overcome, subjugate, vanquish” (219).  The second, also obsolete meaning or use in English, is also quite interesting: “To press hard; to ply closely with questions, entreaties, etc.” (219). Let’s put a pin in those and continue.

The entries that follow, contrary to Brohaugh’s account, give quotes and a dates, as early as 1526, for uses that are consistent with our sense of its current meaning: “To press down (in space.) Often, more widely: To force, bring, move, or put into a lower position by any physical action: to lower.”  The quote following the entry references depressing a bellows to fan a flame. A figurative use of the word, from the same date, “To lower in station, fortune or influence: to put down, bring low, humble.” And immediately following another, similar reference includes yet a further aspect of the same action: “to keep down, repress, restrain from activity….” The example of this use of the word is dated from 1562. In fact, in many of these figurative uses, the idea of being ‘depressed’ is linked to lowering one’s dignity or making someone more humble, “undignified” or even “debased.”  Then, as Brohaugh suggests, around 1621 the word takes on a more exact version of its current meaning: “To bring into low spirits, cast down mentally, dispirit, deject, sadden” (219, 220). [iii]

I am fairly certain that many of you, as you read the list, found yourselves as I did, saying “yes, that’s what depression feels like!” Depression is “crushing,” one can feel “overcome”; and the person pressing or plying you with questions, is you—and anyone else who notices that you are depressed. There is also, I think a loss of dignity or even a sense of humiliation that we inflict on ourselves and that may be amplified by others, simply because we can’t just ‘snap out of it.’ In fact, the more recent, current meanings of “dispirit” or “sadden,” almost sanitize the earlier and more visceral associations that once attached to being depressed. I want to look further into the idea of ‘de-spiriting,’ but first we should note the OED’s listings for the full form of the word depression.

We will put aside all of the interesting ancillary meanings and applications that no one (okay, few people have) has ever heard of—in astronomy, or gunnery, or surgery, or surveying—all of which have to do with an angle or distance below a given horizontal point of reference. These are fascinating in their own right, but they are obscure, to the point of being almost obsolete. Let’s get to the good stuff—the “lowering of a column of mercury in a barometer, or of the atmospheric pressure which is thereby measured” (219).  Sorry, couldn’t resist. The 6th entry (once again) is more to our point: “the condition of being depressed in spirits; dejection[iv]” (220).  A condition, in this sense, is a state of being; states of being can be active (acting), passive (acted upon) or static (neither acting, nor acted upon).  We are reminded to, in the OED that in its obsolete meaning, condition could also mean the nature or quality of a thing, thus implying a kind of stasis. In other words, it may be a state of being that will not easily be changed or acted upon. Depression is not, then, something one can simply ‘get over.’

Let’s return then, for a few moments to the idea of depression as “de-spirited.” I’ve broken the word into its root and its prefix. “De” is a prefix that almost always means “of” or “from,” as in “away from” or to have something taken away; in this case, to have one’s spirit taken away. Spirit, as I am using it, is not at all religious or mystical. I’m using spirit in the sense that a horse may be ‘spirited’; or we when we visited grandma in the hospital, she seemed in good spirits; or even, the candidates engaged in spirited debate over the legalization of drugs and prostitution. Spirit has long been associated with one’s vigor or health, rather than with ghosts and souls. This is probably inconsistent with the meaning of spirit as it was used in the 16th or 17th century, even in connection with depression as a condition or state of being, that is ‘de-spirited.’ To make this distinction is to remind myself that, to feel ‘de-spirited’ is not to have lost one’s spirit, nor to have one’s spirit taken away—because that simply can’t happen.

In the oldest use of the words “spirit” and “soul” they were inseparable from “breath.” To “in-spire” is to “breathe in”; to “ex-spire” is to breathe out—albeit for the last time. To be “inspired” is to be ‘filled with spirit’ or breath –pneuma, as in ‘pneumatic’ –or powered by air. Psyche is soul; but the distinction between soul and spirit is only about as old as Descartes and Cartesian materialism.[v] Rene Descartes was, of course, the French philosopher and one time mercenary, who proclaimed “I think, therefore I am”—in a book (Meditations) inspired by a visit from an angel. He also thought that the soul resided in the pineal gland (Hillman, 68). By the way, contemporary scientists (many of whom are Cartesian materialists) have no idea what the pineal gland does—neither do I. I am completely agnostic when it comes to matters of soul.  Anyway.

We will stipulate that no matter how bad things get, one cannot deprive oneself, nor can one be deprived of one’s spirit, simply because one is depressed. This is true, whether one believes in a soul, or not; this is true whether one feels ‘de-spirited’ or ‘crushed’ or ‘oppressed,’ or not. The wisdom of this realization is, in fact, locked within the history of the word spirit itself: you cannot be de-spirited—unless you stop breathing. My strategy, for better or worse, when dealing with my own depression, is to simply just keep breathing.

Thanks once again to the incredibly talented and super investigative Kelly Knox for this detailed and extremely interested look at the meaning and history behind the ‘other’ word for the black dog.

Keep checking in here, as there’s so much more to come.


[i] Brohaugh, William. English Through the Ages. Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.

[ii] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: p-z. II, Oxford University Press, 1971. (692)

[iii] I am skipping around and down the page, the quotes are from several different, numbered or lettered sections; most are on page 219 in the text on page 629 of my compact edition. I note the change to the next ‘page’ following the last quote, only in passing. If you want to check my references, you’ll want to read the entire entry.  The last bit was the 6th numbered entry given for the word ‘Depress’; and I am sure that there is a proper and tidy way to reference this fact in the MLA Style Handbook, but this is a blog and not a term paper—and the critical reader should be pleased, shocked and amused, that I am using endnotes to reference my sources at all….

[iv] Quick note: dejection is from the Latin past participle of Dejicere –to throw down or throw away. We can leave it at that.

[v] For a much more complete discussion, see Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. Harper and Row, 1977 (67-70). He has a much different take, regarding psyche, but we’ll get there another time.

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