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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.]
  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.
    • 1941 August, C. Hamilton Ellis, “The English Station”, in Railway Magazine, page 358:
      If Euston is not typically English, St. Pancras is. Its façade is a nightmare of improbable Gothic. It is fairly plastered with the aesthetic ideals of 1868, and the only beautiful thing about it is Barlow's roof. It is haunted by the stuffier kind of ghost. Yet there is something about the ordered whole of St. Pancras that would make demolition a terrible pity.
    • 2009, Steven Rosefielde, Red Holocaust, page 240:
      The Red Holocaust is best interpreted in this light as the bitter fruit of an utopian gambit that was socially misengineered into a dystopic nightmare by despots in humanitarian disguise.


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nightmare (third-person singular simple present nightmares, present participle nightmaring, simple past and past participle nightmared)

  1. (intransitive) To experience a nightmare.
    • 1931, The Sleeping Car Conductor, page 16:
      Brother Fary of Omaha was nightmaring the rest of the night.
    • 1998, Andrea Benton Rushing, “Surviving Rape: A Morning/Mourning Ritual”, in Mary E. Odem, Jody Clay-Warner, editors, Confronting Rape and Sexual Assault (Worlds of Women; number 3), SR Books, published 2003, →ISBN, page 6:
      It’s been 21,900 hours, 912 days, 130 Saturday nights, 30 months, 3 years since October 16, 1988 when I was stunned awake, straddled by a man I did not know. First I think I’m nightmaring.
    • 2011, Rachel Simon, The Story of Beautiful Girl, Grand Central Publishing, published 2012, →ISBN:
      He must be imagining that behind the rain of leaves was a dark-haired man sitting in his chair, smiling away. He must be so fed up with himself that he was nightmaring while awake.