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What Does ‘Doomscrolling’ Mean?

Of the two parts of "doomscrolling," the "doom" part is more interesting.

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #786
a woman doomscrolling in bed
The Quick And Dirty

Whether you call it "doomscrolling" or "doomsurfing," it's not your fault that you feel compelled to do it (but you should probably try to cut back).

I confess that I am a doomscroller. A big doomscroller. 

If you aren’t sure what that means, the definition uploaded to Urban Dictionary in March 2020 by a user who goes by PenelopePenguin, is perfect: 

When you keep scrolling through all of your social media feeds, looking for the most recent upsetting news about the latest catastrophe. The amount of time spent doing this is directly proportional to how much worse you're going to feel after you're done.

‘Doomsurfing’ or ‘Doomscrolling’?

The practice has also been called “doomsurfing,” but “doomscrolling” has won as the word people use to describe — or bemoan — the behavior. 

You can see on Google Trends that both words emerged around the same time in late March, but in late May, “doomscrolling” as a search term took off, and “doomsurfing” just continued to sputter along. 

A Google Trends chart showing doomscrolling beating doomsurfing starting in May

People were using the word “doomscrolling” before March—Merriam-Webster traces it back to at least 2018, but that first definition on Urban Dictionary was written about two weeks after the NBA shut down and Tom Hanks announced he had the coronavirus, which in my mind, marks the date when people in the U.S. started to realize that COVID-19 was serious.

Doomscrolling existed before the pandemic, it just got a big boost as a result of the pandemic. Kind of like sourdough starters and Zoom calls.

‘Scrolling’

Taking a closer look at the word itself, I’ll start with the easy part. ‘Scrolling’ first referred to physical written scrolls like the kind you see in movies about treasure hunters or ancient monasteries. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says "scrolling" was first used in the 1970s to describe the way we read things or move things on a screen.

‘Doom’

‘Doom’ is more interesting (and isn’t that why we’re drawn to it?).

It’s Germanic, and at first in Old English it referred to any law or decree, but it quickly took on a sense of judgment, and then fate and ruin.

Around the year 1000, “doom” became associated with the Last Judgment at the end of the world, which was also called “doomsday” and later also called “the crack of doom” and “the day of doom.”

‘The Doomsday Book’

The Doomsday Book (Domesday Book, as it was spelled in Old English) was an attempt at a great survey of all of William the Conqueror’s lands and people in 1086 to determine how much everyone should be paying in taxes. 

It was called the Doomsday Book because its determinations were final, unrefutable, much like God’s rulings during the Last Judgment. Back then, the word was developing a sense of the dread and badness it has today, but it still had a stronger connection to that “judgment" meaning.

The other ‘Doomsday Book’

And that reminds me of another book called the “Doomsday Book”—a science fiction novel by Connie Willis that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It’s about a time traveling historian who ends up stuck in the time of the Black Death. It’s one of the bleakest but most memorable books I’ve ever read. I both highly recommend it and warn you against it right now because it might not be the best time to read about a killer viral plague that doesn’t end well. Or maybe it is.

Other ‘doom’ words

While I was on the OED website, I looked up other “doom” words and found some fun ones:

  • Doom-house. A judgment hall.
  • Doom-stool. A judgment seat.
  • Doom-stead. A place of judgment.
  • Doomage. A fine if you you didn’t pay your property taxes. (From the U.S. in the 1800s. The examples are a little confusing, but I think that’s what the fine was for.)

But the best one was “doomer.” If you were a doomer, you were one who dooms — in other words, a judge.

If you were a doomer, you were one who dooms — in other words, a judge.

Why we doomscroll

Experts say it’s not our fault that we’re drawn to doomscrolling. We’re biologically programmed to pay close attention to news about threats because knowing the dangers we face helps keep us alive. But the 24-7 stream of horrifying information on social media hijacks that natural instinct and can become so overwhelming that it’s unhealthy. That’s why I’m looking forward to hearing the Savvy Psychologist’s podcast this week because she is talking about the psychological implications of doomscrolling and most important, at least to me, how to cut back.

And if I can cut back, maybe my husband will stop saying “OK, doomer,” every time I read a headline to him. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.