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shameless pleading

Slough of despond

 The worst part was that the pigs seemed to find it amusing.

Dear Word Detective: I recently happened to encounter a former coworker of mine waiting for a bus, and I asked him how he’d been doing. He responded that he had been in “a slough of despond” for a month or two after he lost his job, but is now working again and feeling better. It would have been awkward to ask him what “slough of despond” means, but I gather it has something to do with depression. What say you? — Cliff S.

Funny you should ask. Just the other night I was taking an evening stroll down our rural road when I noticed one of the local honor students driving his daddy’s giant pickup truck directly at me. I stepped off the side of the road, lost my footing, and landed, face down, in a damp drainage ditch. Directly downhill from a pig pen. A real pig pen, with real pigs. I’m writing this, incidentally, in the shower, where I’ve been since that night. I may come out in a week or two.

This sad tale is relevant to your question because Christian, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical epic “Pilgrim’s Progress,” endures a similar mishap (sans the pickup truck, of course). In Christian’s case, the locale is a fetid bog known as the Slough of Despond, into which he stumbles, and then sinks and becomes trapped, weighed down as he is by the several hundred pounds of his sins he’s carrying in a rucksack. It’s a long story, but he’s rescued by a dude named Help and it all turns out OK in the end. The great thing about Pilgrim’s Progress is that it’s easy to keep the characters straight because they all have names (Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Evangelist, etc.) that describe their character or function in the story.

The Slough of Despond in Bunyan’s tale is a metaphor, of course, and Bunyan depicted the Slough as the repository of humanity’s sins and moral failures (“… the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run”). But many subsequent writers, from Emily Bronte to Somerset Maugham to John Steinbeck, have used “Slough of Despond” to mean either a prolonged state of extreme depression or a material state of dire poverty and suffering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “slough” (which rhymes with “cow”) as “A piece of soft, miry, or muddy ground; especially a place or hole in a road or way filled with wet mud or mire and impassable by heavy vehicles, horses, etc.” A mudhole, in other words. The OED draws a blank on the origin of the word, but suggest it may be rooted in the Scots word “slunk,” which means the same thing and is of equally obscure origin. This “slough,” by the way, is unrelated to the verb “slough,” pronounced “sluff” and meaning “to throw off or shed like dead skin” or simply “get rid of,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “peel.”

To “despond,” of course, means to lose heart, lose confidence, become without hope and “despondent.” It comes from the Latin “despondere” (“de,” away, plus “spondere,” to promise), and originally meant “to surrender, yield,” (i.e., “promise away”), but the sense today is of “giving up hope.” Thus a “despondent” person is seriously stuck in the mud and can only hope that helpful “Help” dude is on the way.

2 comments to Slough of despond

  • I visited Bunyan’s hometown of Elstow, Bedfordshire…. it’s speculated that the “slough” was based on the wetland and stream near the abbey where he preached.

  • Dave Khan

    The rhymes-with-cow pronunciation of slough as given in the OED is standard for England/Britain (and perhaps New England), but for most of us in the U.S. it’s generally pronounced as “slew”.

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