11 Old Words and Phrases for Depression

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Theodore Roosevelt once said that “black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” The black care he referred to was depression—and that was far from the only term used to describe the disorder. Many words and phrases have been used to describe depression over the ages; here are a few of them.

1. Black Ass

“Certainly have the Black Ass today,” author Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1945. “Miss Mary so much it makes me sick ... So am being black-assed and temperamental.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines black ass as “a state of depression or disgust.”

2. Black-Dog

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, this term meaning “melancholic, depressed” originated in the UK in 1826.

3. Blue Devils

Using the blues to refer to feelings of sadness or depression dates back to the 1740s. The phrase blue devil, meanwhile, refers to a bout of depression and is so-named because “depressed [blue] feelings ... ‘bedevil’ the sufferer,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. It popped up as far back as 1756 and is still in use today.

4. and 5. Down in the Chops and Down in the Gills

Rather than saying you’re down in the dumps, consider using down in the chops (chops meaning mouth), from 1830, or down in the gills, from 1853.

6. Got the Morbs

An 1880 phrase meaning “temporary melancholia.”

7. Mean Reds

According to Green’s, this phrase was coined by Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958; it also made an appearance in the 1961 film:

Holly: “Listen. You know those days when you get the mean reds?” Paul: “The ‘mean reds?’ You mean, like the blues?” Holly: “No. The blues are because you’re getting fat or it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Don’t you ever get that feeling?”

8. Mubble-fubbles

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this obsolete term, which dates back to 1589, as “A state of depression or melancholy; despondency, low spirits. Chiefly in in (also out of) one's mubble-fubbles.” A similar term, which appeared 10 years later, is mulligrubs.

9. Megrims

When plural, megrims is a word for “low spirits; melancholy, depression,” according to the OED—a usage that originated in the 1590s. When it’s singular, megrim can refer to a headache or a migraine (this usage goes back to 1440), or dizziness and vertigo (which can accompany a migraine; this usage first popped up in 1595).

10. Whips and Jingles

Sometimes also whips and jangles, this term first popped up in the mid-1940s meaning nervousness and depression. By the ‘50s, it would also mean “withdrawal from alcohol or narcotics,” according to Green’s.

11. Wiffle-Woffles

Wiffle-woffles emerged in the 1840s as a British slang term for a stomach ache; by 1904, according to Green’s, it also popped up as slang for “a state of depression” in Scotland.