Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 14 December 2002

A Lexicographer writes

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'Is having personal demons like having a personal trainer?' asked my husband, casting aside a newspaper magazine to the peril of his glass of whisky. (It survived, briefly.)

He might well ask, for these 'personal demons' have been having quite an outing in the newspapers recently. Anne Diamond, according to a so-called friend quoted in the Daily Mirror, 'like most people has her demons - if she has issues with work or family, she eats and drinks'. Indeed, she 'balloons'. I like, or rather don't like, 'has issues with'.

According to the same newspaper, Robin Williams 'has been tortured by personal demons' including cocaine, which he wittily remarked was God's way of telling you you've got too much money. Another person who has a 'tortured mind', in the words of the introduction to Mary Ann Sieghart's article about him in the Times, is Gordon Brown. She goes so far as to ask, 'Who knows where the roots of his demons reside?'

I suspect that the etymological roots of this demon business reside, if roots do reside, with Socrates. As it happens, Socrates did not say that he was guided by an interior demon or daemon (daimon in Greek), but a daimonion, a divinum quiddam, a certain divine presence or agency. His enemies said of him, as they were later wickedly to say of Jesus, that he was possessed of a demon.

But it wasn't until the 18th century that demon was used as a metaphorical agent of woe; 'Melancholy is a kind of Demon that haunts our Island,' Addison wrote in the Spectator (no relation) in 1712. In the 19th century the demon was often drink, and this has descended generally into a jocularism.

The current use has a different connotation. These demons are somehow responsible for our behaving badly; sometimes they are chemical (drugs, and still drink), sometimes emotional (depression, anger). It is of a part with cod-psychological reference to one's 'dark side'. I am not sure why personal is so often tacked on. It is the verdigris on the clichZ. But my husband might be correct in thinking that, just like personal trainers, personalised stationery or personal stereos, personal demons are somehow more exclusive than the common kind.

Milton in his ode 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity' has the demons of the ancient world shrinking and departing, the Lars and Lemures, Peor and Baalim, Ashtaroth and Moloch. Botticelli paints the same in his 'Mystic Nativity'. Happy Christmas and down with demons.