Mind your language

The ancient origins of ‘doomscrolling’

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

In 2019, Boris Johnson hit out at ‘the doomsters and the gloomsters’. I was surprised then to find that the doublet doom and gloomdated only from 1947, in the play Finian’s Rainbow. Three years after the 2016 referendum, Project Fear was still being applied to Brexit. Since then, to buy time in combating coronavirus, another project was launched to instil fear in the population. So, if they could, they stayed at home, petrified of Covid-19, and it proved hard to tempt them out again.

Now Brexit and the pandemic are dwarfed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin hinted he wouldn’t mind using nuclear weapons, Joe Biden has run around like Chicken Licken telling everyone that the sky’s going to fall on their heads if they so much as misplace a secondhand MiG.


In any case the destruction of homes, hospitals and churches is apocalyptic enough. Civilians in basements and non-combatants abroad have spent the early hours doomscrolling: obsessively looking through news reports and Twitter rumours.

In the 1970s, scrolling came in as a term for moving the text on a computer screen up or down. Paging was an alternative but it didn’t catch on as computer screens are more like a scroll than a codex.

The doomelement of doomscrolling is ancient. It has to do with law because it used to mean ‘set in place’, just like the Romans’ statutes. Far back, doomshares an origin with the verb do. The sentence for breaking the law is your doom or fate (‘usually adverse fate; rarely in good sense’, remarks the Oxford English Dictionary). Everyone is sent to heaven – or hell – on doomsday, at the crack of doom, in Macbeth’s words, though we don’t know whether by crack he meant ‘thunder’ or ‘the last trump’. Tolkien played on words in giving the volcanic fissures in Mount Doom the name Cracks of Doom.

The practice of doomscrolling spread during the pandemic and appealed to Americans during the storming of the Capitol. But when doomsday comes, Twitter might miss it.

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