Final Word

Eskom’s nightmare wind brings no energy


It would not be an exaggeration to say that developments surrounding the South African state electricity utility company Eskom, have put the wind up the country’s business community and probably the country as a whole.

There is some debate as to the exact origins of the expression “to put the wind up someone”, but there seems to be general consensus that it means: “to make someone feel worried about their situation” or “to alarm or make nervous” when used in the slight variation, “to get the wind up”.

The most common belief is that it developed from armed services slang during World War I.

The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, compiled by Eric Partridge, puts forward the theory that it comes from a parody of an English marching song of the time, The British Grenadiers. It was popular among enlisted men, and went in part:

“Father was a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo,
the wind blew up his trousers,
and he didn’t know what to do.”

In 1918 Wilfred Owen wrote about “shells dropping so close that they thoroughly put the wind up a Life Guardsman in the trench with me”.

According to the theory put forward by Partridge, on the wings of the marching song, over time anyone who was flustered or anxious was said to “have the wind up his trousers”.


It would also be true to say that the wind of anxiousness and fear that the regular electricity ‘blackouts’ delivered on the country by Eskom in recent weeks have turned into a real-life nightmare for many members of the business community and the economy in general.

In the original sense of the word a ‘nightmare’ is an unpleasant dream that can cause strong emotional responses, fear, a feeling of horror, sadness, anxiety and despair.

If you think that the ‘mare’ in ‘nightmare’ has anything to do with a female horse, you are wrong. It is much more sinister than just a ride on a wild horse.

The original ‘mare’ refers to a demon or goblin from Germanic folklore that was believed to haunt people in their sleep, riding on their chests, leaving them with a feeling of suffocation. The English word hails from the 13th century, comes from the older German nacht mahr, and referred to an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation.

In Norwegian and Danish we find the words mareritt and mareridt respectively, both of which can be translated to ‘mare-ride’.

It was only in 1829 that ‘nightmare’ was first recorded in the sense of referring to bad dreams in general and shortly thereafter to describe a “very distressing experience”.

It is in this last sense of the word that most South Africans are experiencing what Eskom has been dishing out to them over the last few weeks. It reminds one of the old proverb: “Vision with action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.”

And the final word should probably go to the famous songwriter/singer John Lennon, who once said: “I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?”

by Piet Coetzer

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