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From Middle English night-mare, from Old English *nihtmare, equivalent to night +‎ mare (evil spirit believed to afflict a sleeping person). Cognate with Scots nichtmare and nichtmeer, Dutch nachtmerrie, Middle Low German nachtmār, German Nachtmahr.



nightmare (plural nightmares)

  1. (now rare) A demon or monster, thought to plague people while they slept and cause a feeling of suffocation and terror during sleep. [from 14th c.]
    • 1817, Walter Scott, Rob Roy:
      It haunted me, however, more than once, like the nightmare.
    • 1843, Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat’:
      I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight—an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off—incumbent eternally upon my heart!
  2. (now chiefly historical) A feeling of extreme anxiety or suffocation experienced during sleep; Sleep paralysis. [from 16th c.]
    • 1753, John Bond, An Essay on the Incubus, or Night-mare, London: Printed for D. Wilson and T. Durham, at Plato’s Head, in the Strand, page 2:
      The Night-mare generally ſeizes people ſleeping on their backs, and often begins with frightful dreams, which are ſoon ſucceeded by a difficult reſpiration, a violent oppreſſion on the breaſt, and a total privation of voluntary motion.
    • 1792, James Boswell, in Danziger & Brady (eds.), Boswell: The Great Biographer (Journals 1789–1795), Yale 1989, p. 209:
      Had been afflicted in the night with that strange complaint called the nightmare.
  3. A very bad or frightening dream. [from 19th c.]
    I had a nightmare that I tried to run but could neither move nor breathe.
    • July 18 2012, Scott Tobias, AV Club The Dark Knight Rises[1]
      With his crude potato-sack mask and fear-inducing toxins, The Scarecrow, a “psychopharmacologist” at an insane asylum, acts as a conjurer of nightmares, capable of turning his patients’ most terrifying anxieties against them.
  4. (figuratively) Any bad, miserable, difficult or terrifying situation or experience that arouses anxiety, terror, agony or great displeasure. [from 20th c.]
    Cleaning up after identity theft can be a nightmare of phone calls and letters.


Related terms[edit]