Shaking off late-summer hebetude

There are several roots for our terms for summer doldrums – and none of them are positive.

Keith Srakocic/AP
Cathy Schlott, the curator for behavioral management and education for the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, holds a three-month-old two-toed sloth on Feb. 8, 2016, in West Mifflin, Pa.

I’m not normally much of a napper. But something about these late-summer Sunday afternoons has made it seem more appealing than usual to stretch out for a few minutes – just a few, really – on the living room sofa.

I may not even fall asleep.

Except that I do. Is an hour and a half really “a few minutes”? And when I wake up, is it still Sunday?

It may be just the summer heat – although it hasn’t been too hot or sticky here this year. Or it may be something else.

One of the word-of-the-day services I track had a pick recently for which I could find no particular “news peg,” as we say in journalism, except perhaps on my sofa.

It’s hebetude. It means lethargy or dullness, and is usually associated with mental dullness. It came into English around 1620, pretty directly from Latin.

It sounds a bit rarefied, but Merriam-Webster spotted it in the wild, in the letters column of the Weekend Australian: A writer complained of “an epidemic of hebetude among young people who ... are placing too great a reliance on electronic devices to do their thinking and remembering.” 

M-W also offers a rather ominous literary example from Joseph Conrad: “The leaden weight of an irremediable idleness descended upon General Feraud, who having no resources within himself sank into a state of awe-inspiring hebetude.”

Hebetude sounds like not the place to be.  

English has various terms for mental states of don’t-want-to-budge. Broadly synonymous, they have different metaphors behind them, and those roots bear a bit of study. None of them represent states of mind we want to cultivate.

Lethargy may be the most familiar. It goes back to the late 14th century, meaning a “state of prolonged torpor or inactivity, inertness of body or mind,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The dictionary traces it to a Greek word meaning “forgetfulness” and suggests the etymological idea was forgetfulness through inactivity. 

Those who remember their Greek mythology know that Lethe was the personification of oblivion or forgetfulness. 

Another synonym, torpor, is rooted in the idea of numbness or sluggishness. And what about sluggishness? Was this quality named for the critter? Or vice versa?

The latter, actually. Slug meant “a lazy person” for about 300 years before it came to mean a snail without a shell, around 1700. Slug was – is – a variant on sluggard, which was actually used as a surname for some time, apparently. Is sluggishness maybe an unfair knock on slugs? Maybe so. A Daily Mail science article calls these “robust little animals” just “snails with bad PR.” 

Still, slugs and sloths seem to be a special class: animals whose common names derive from the name of a vice.

The most benign of this lot of hebetude kin I’ve run across is oscitant, from the Latin oscitans, rooted in the idea of an “open mouth.” Its literal sense is “yawning with drowsiness,” but more figuratively it also means lazy or stupid.

So let’s not go there, either. It’s still technically summer – the equinox occurs on Sept. 22. But the first brisk breezes of fall have been felt here in Boston, conveying, as always, a sense of new beginning in this city of students.

It’s time to get up off the sofa.

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