During lockdown, people chatting on social media about how they were feeling often mentioned cabin fever.  Google Trends registers numbers of lookups on Google of a given term. It shows that in the UK lookups for cabin fever shot up from a value of 8 in the week of 1–7 March to a peak of 100 at the end of March. In other words, there was a staggering 1,150% increase near the start of lockdown.

But what exactly is cabin fever, and where does it come from?

And do you have your own story about its origins? I certainly had mine.

Cabin fever is not a recognised psychological illness, so there’s no standard definition of the sort you might find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM for short) of the American Psychiatric Association. But generally, people clearly mean a heap of negative feelings such as:

  • frustration,
  • boredom,
  • listlessness,
  • resentment, and
  • feeling hemmed in.

Sound familiar?

The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions.’ (Lassitude: such a very OED sort of word.)

A psychologist writing about how to overcome cabin fever stated that it included ‘lethargy, irritability, frustration, impatience, fear, anger and food cravings in an attempt to cure the boredom.’

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you will have repeatedly experienced one or more of those feelings over the last few weeks. Hopefully for you, unlike me you will not have succumbed to those vexatious ‘food cravings.’

Now, what kind of cabin are we talking about in cabin fever? My rationalisation used to be the following: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ship cabins on long voyages in history, possibly even on sailing ships. One story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain, such as my mother made, people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their small cabin as a private space and not being able to get off the ship.

Baloney! In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter, presumably when snowed in.

The word first appears in a 1918 novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

‘Insidious mental ailment.’ I like that. It could apply to so many modern ills.

So, my little personal etymology was wrong. I can’t call it a folk etymology because folk etymology is a widespread but mistaken belief about the origins of a word while mine was merely personal. (The mistaken belief that niggardly derives from the N-word is an example which has had serious repercussions in the past.)

An example of folk etymology in this sense is the story about round robin coming from ruban rond that I wrote about last week. Another well-known folk etymology is the idea that brass monkey(s), meaning very cold, comes from cannonballs being stacked pyramidally on a brass rack called a monkey. When it was very cold, so the story goes, the rack contracted causing the cannonballs to roll all over the place.

The OED is very measured in its rejection of the story. Baloney! would be a more forthright rejection which has its own folk etymology, namely that it is a corruption of Bologna (sausage). Taking a food term to mean nonsense reminds me of the Scottish ‘You’re talking mince’.

In a future blog I’ll look at some examples of folk etymology in its other meaning, namely, when people reshape unfamiliar words to make them sound like words they already know, as happened historically with sparrowgrass for asparagus.


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