The word “doldrums” means a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, listlessness, or depression.
In the late 1700s, the word as applied to people meant dull or sluggish. This probably derived from “dol,” meaning “dull” with its form taken from “tantrum.” A tantrum was a fit of petulance and passion, a doldrum was a fit of sloth and dullness.
Today we still say that a person suffering from the blahs or lack of energy is “in the doldrums.” And, in 2012, the Oman Daily Observer announced that, “While the US stock market roared ahead, Europe was left in the doldrums.”
But, “doldrums” is also a nautical term that refers to the belt around the Earth near the equator, where sailing ships sometimes get stuck on windless waters. This belt is called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, where the prevailing trade winds of the northern hemisphere blow to the southwest and collide with the southern hemisphere’s driving northeast trade winds. Due to Earth’s rotation, the ITCZ shifts from season to season, causing both dry and rainy seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
Due to intense solar heating near the equator, the warm, moist air is forced up into the atmosphere like a hot air balloon. As the air rises, it cools, causing persistent bands of showers and storms around the Earth’s midsection. The rising air mass finally subsides in what is known as the horse latitudes, where the air moves down toward Earth’s surface.
This equatorial region known as the “The Doldrums” wasn’t named that until the mid 1800s. When reports of ships becalmed near the equator described them as being ‘in the doldrums,’ it was mistakenly thought that the reports were describing their location rather than their state. The earliest known reference to the region’s name was in 1855.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge chronicles the adventures and misfortunes of a sailing vessel. Among the challenges was a time when the winds died, leaving the ship motionless, which the mariner describes like this:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
I know this makes me a wimp, but I’d rather a painted ocean than a stormy one.