Final Word

Avoid doom and gloom – stick to the doom


Headlines about the ‘Rainbow Nation’s’ immediate economic and political future tell a story of doom and gloom. But more ‘doom’ might be our way out of it.

Our story this week starts in ancient Rome and the well-known expression ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’.

Today we all understand this expression to mean that when you find yourself in a strange place it is a good idea to adopt the customs and way of doing things of the locals.

It turns out that this expression had an earlier version and implied advice for staying out of trouble. It read: “When at Rome, do after the doom.”

And it was not as sinister as it sounds to the modern ear. There was a time when the word ‘doom’ did not mean an adverse fate or ill fortune. ‘Doom’ as we know it today developed from the Old English word dōm, which meant judgment, law, and at times condemnation.

The word came to English towards the end of the first century BC and probably from the Proto-Germanic word domas via the Old Frisian dom, Old Norse domr, Old High German tuom, Gothic doms and Greek themis – all from the Sanskrit root dhamam, meaning ‘law’.

A statute book or book of laws in Old English was called a dombec.

Sometime during the 16th century the word ‘doom’ took on the meaning as we understand (and preach) it today as ‘final fate’, ‘ruin’ and ‘destruction’, implying the finality of the Christian Judgment Day.

It is not sure when and why the expression about going to Rome was changed to the version we know today, but it would be a fair guess that it happened because the word ‘doom’ took on this different meaning, losing its ‘law content.

Teaming up with gloom

The word ‘gloom’, which is today often associated with ‘doom’, goes back to an Old Scottish word gloume, dating back to the 14th century and probably related to the Norwegian word glome, meaning ‘to stare sombrely’.

One would, also in Middle Low German, find the word glum, meaning ‘turbid’ and gluren in Dutch, meaning ‘to leer’.

In the sense of meaning ‘darkness’ or ‘obscurity’, ‘gloom’ was first recorded in English in 1629 in the poetry of Milton. In the meaning of ‘melancholy’, ‘dejection’, ‘cloudiness’ or ‘cheerless heaviness of mind’ it dates back to 1744.

Some courses also claim ‘gloom’ is related to the Middle English word gloum(b)en, meaning ‘to look morose’, but there seems to be some difference of opinion among etymologists about this connection.

Shortly before the 20th century ‘doom’ and ‘gloom’ teamed up to give us the modern expression ‘it is all doom and gloom’. It is said to have made its first appearance in American newspaper reports towards the end of the 19th century.

Tellingly for our story of today, it was initially mainly used in reference to politics and finance. It was only towards the middle of the 20th century that the expression gained some traction in broader context after being popularised by the hugely successful musical show Finian’s Rainbow.

Final word

The gloom over the prospects for our ‘Rainbow Nation’ might just pick up if those involved in politics and finance stick more diligently to the dictate of the original Rome expression: ‘... do after the doom’.

by Piet Coetzer

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