Q: Is it my imagination or has “journey” become a ubiquitous term for going mentally or spiritually between points A and B? Is this one more example of making ordinary things seem precious, special, and a bit sanctimonious? I cringe when I hear it but I am a dinosaur way behind the times.
A: Yes, “journey” is used a lot these days in its mental or spiritual sense, and it’s often used to make ordinary things seem special: “my ukulele journey” … “our puppy’s housebreaking journey” … “her scrapbooking journey” … “their weight-loss journey.”
Interestingly, the term was used figuratively when it first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century. It originally referred to a pilgrimage through life, a more weighty version of the examples above.
The word “journey” has been used for both literal and figurative travels since English borrowed it from journee, an Old French word adopted from diurnum, Latin for day.
In Old French, a journee could be a day’s travel, a day’s work, or simply a day, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Modern French, journée has similar senses: journée de repos (day off), dans la journée (during the day), etc.
When “journey” showed up in Middle English writing, the OED says, the meaning was “figurative, esp. the ‘pilgrimage’ or passage through life.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ancrene Riwle (also known as Ancrene Wisse), an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200.
The OED cites The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle (1972), edited by Eric John Dobson. But to make clear that the passage refers to a spiritual journey, not a geographic one, we’re using an expanded version of the passage from Ancrene Wisse (2005), edited by Bella Millett and based on Dobson’s work:
“þe pilegrim i þe wor[l]des wei, þah he ga forðward toward te ham of heouene, he sið ant hereð unnet, ant spekeð umbe hwile; wreaðeð him for wohes, ant moni þing mei letten him of his iurnee” (“The pilgrim on his way in the world, though he goes forward toward his home in heaven, he sees and hears and speaks unworthily once in a while, and becomes angry over injustice, and many things may hinder his journey”).
In the late 13th century, a “journey” came to mean a day’s travel, which the OED notes was “usually estimated in the Middle Ages at 20 miles.”
The first Oxford citation is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a Middle English collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures. This passage is from the life of St. James:
“Þis holie Man ladde þene dede forth … fyftene Iorneies grete are day … to þe mount of Ioie” (“This holy man led the dead man forth … fifteen great journeys are the distance … to the Mount of Joy”).
The usual modern sense of “journey” as a “course of going or travelling, having its beginning and end in place or time, and thus viewed as a distinct whole,” appeared in the late 14th century, according to OED citations.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Legends of the Holy Rood, a collection of medieval tales loosely based on the Bible: “When he was þus cumen hame ogayn, / Of his iorne he was ful fayne” (“When he was thus come home again, Of his journey he was very glad”).
Like you, we often see “journey” used to make ordinary things (gardening, sewing, banjo playing, etc.) seem special, but this doesn’t particularly bother us.
We’ll end, however, with an example of “journey” in a 14th-century lullaby that does make us cringe. This excerpt is from “Thou Wandrest in This Fals World,” one of the earliest lullabies in the English language:
Child, thou nert a pilgrim bot an vncuthe gist,
Thi dawes beth itold, thi iurneis beth icast;
Whoder thou salt wend north or est,
Deth the sal betide with bitter bale in brest.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, this wo Adam the wroght
Whan he of the appil ete and Eue hit him betacht.
(Child, you are not a pilgrim but an unknown guest,
Your days are counted, your journeys are cast;
Wherever you may go, to the north or east,
Death will come to you with bitter sorrow in your breast
Lullay, lullay, little child, Adam wrought this woe for you,
When he ate the apple and Eve gave it to him.)
[Note, Oct. 24, 2023: A reader of the blog asks whether the words “est” and “brest” at the end of the third and fourth lines of the lullaby above are supposed to rhyme. They no doubt were intended to rhyme. In Middle English, words were generally spelled as they were pronounced: “east” could be spelled “eest” or “est,” plus a few variations, and “breast” could be written “breest” or “brest,” plus variants.]