8 words for daydreamers
We all recognize the glazed gaze of the daydreamer; that wistfully far-off look of someone who, in their mind’s eye, is far, far away from all the stresses and trivialities of everyday life… Still with us?
The word dreamer has been in use since at least the 15th century to describe someone who has ‘vision, ideals, or fantasies’, however daydreamer, specifically describing ‘one who distracts himself or herself from the present by indulging in fantasies and reveries’, did not appear until 1750. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Moses Browne, a pen-cutter, poet, and clergyman, with the first usage in his rather aptly titled Sunday Thoughts:
Ye throngs loquacious! with more clamorous croaks, Call! louder, to these fascinated roofs, And start th’ obscene, day-dreamers up to shame.
The Reverend Browne may not have been especially pleased with the ‘obscene daydreamers’ in his congregation, but we’re rather more partial to the odd daydream and have idled a while in the OED‘s Historical Thesaurus to collect eight words for daydreamer fit to capture any dreamer’s imagination. Check out the list below:
In the 14th century, being a daydreamer was no harmless thing. A musard is ‘a dreamer, a fool, an idler; a wretch’, and was borrowed into English from French – but is now, thankfully, obsolete.
Just as we have generic or placeholder names for ‘the man in the street’ like Joe Bloggs and John Public, so do we have generic names for the man with his head in the clouds. Appearing in the early 17th century, John-a-dreams is a generic name for ‘a person given to daydreaming or idle meditation; a dreamer, a fantasist’.
And following the same concept as John-a-dreams, nearly 250 years later the Victorians came up with Johnny Head-in-Air as a nickname for ‘a man with “his head in the clouds”, unconscious of his surroundings’.
There are fishmongers, cheesemongers, and the more unsavoury warmongers, and then there are air-mongers. The -monger suffix ultimately comes from the Latin ‘mango’, meaning ‘dealer’, entering Old English via German, and is frequently used to denote a trader of a specific commodity.
No prizes for guessing what air-mongers trade in; the OED defines this obsolete term as ‘a person who pursues shadows or illusions’.
No, not an actual constructor of castles, but a rather more intangible affair: ‘one who builds castles in the air; a day-dreamer, a visionary schemer’. A 1711 quotation from The Spectator, a daily publication whose purpose was ‘to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality’, described castle-builders as ‘One of that Species of Men… denominated Castle-Builders, who scorn to be beholden to the Earth for a Foundation.’
The term also pops up in the derivatives castle-building – as seen in Sir William Hamilton’s Lectures on metaphysics and logic: ‘Reverie or castle-building, is a kind of waking dream’ – and castle-built, as well as stone’s throw away in castle-hunter.
An Alnaschar is ‘a person given to unrealistic dreams, expectations, or plans, especially of wealth or success’ – and you might recognize the name from the stories of Arabian Nights. Alnaschar features in the Barber’s Story of his Fifth Brother as a beggar who plans to make his fortune by selling glassware, however as his daydreaming of wealth and success becomes ever more fanciful, he accidentally smashes his stock, destroying his means of livelihood.
Alnaschar in this sense is now rare in use, though you might come across the derivative alnascharism, the ‘propensity or tendency to indulge in unrealistic dreams, plans, or expectations.’
The reverist is transported by his imagination to a world which he believed to exist beyond the bounds of his actual knowledge.
This first use of reverist, for someone who ‘indulges in or is susceptible to reveries’, was written in an edition of the London Magazine in 1824, and while still popping up at times across the 20th century, has become rare in usage. Reverist comes from the noun reverie, which was borrowed into English from the French ‘rêverie’ in the 13th century, then relating to wild or uncontrolled behaviour.
Transcendentalist poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the first use of stargazer to refer to ‘a daydreamer or idealist; an absent-minded person’ in an 1843 edition of The Dial, an American magazine that in its first iteration was the Transcendentalist movement’s go-to publication. He wrote: ‘The materialist… mocks at… star-gazers and dreamers.’
And finally we have another fantasizing hero, except this time it comes from James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was first published on 18 March 1939 in The New Yorker. In the story, the mind-mannered Mitty, inspired by his mundane surroundings, in turn imagines himself as a US Navy pilot, a surgeon, an assassin, and a Royal Air Force pilot engaging in heroic and daring deeds.
As defined in the OED, a Mitty is, therefore, ‘a person likened to Walter Mitty in indulging in or acting out daydreams, especially involving a more exciting or glamorous life than he or she actually leads’.