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What Does 'In the Doldrums' Mean?

The doldrums are a real place, but "in the doldrums" can also be used figuratively to refer to anything that moves sluggishly.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 10, 2018

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a woman lying in bed

Have you ever felt like you were in the doldrums?

If so, it probably didn’t feel too good. You may have been sluggish or sleepy; uninspired or downright depressed. 

But did you know your murkiness was mirrored in the ocean?

That’s because the doldrums are a real place!

The Doldrums Are a Region Near the Equator

The doldrums are a wide band of water on either side of the equator. They’re known for being hot, windless, and still. The fancy name for this region is the ITCZ—the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone. 

What’s converging there are two opposing trade winds—one from the northern hemisphere, blowing to the southwest—and one from the southern hemisphere, blowing northeast. The intense heat at the equator warms these trade winds and pushes them straight up, just like heat causes a hot air balloon to rise.

Because the air currents are rising up, instead of crossing the ocean surface, there’s very little wind in this region. And there’s not much current. 

In fact, before the days of machine power, ships were known to get stuck in the doldrums for weeks on end. Here’s a description of what that might have been like, from Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey–Maturin series.

Even at night heat seemed to emanate from the bloody moon, and during the oppressive, stifling days the sun, even from behind its frequent low cloud, made the pitch bubble in the seams of the deck and the tar melt so that it dripped from the upper rigging. … the heat worked right down into the lowest depths of the ship, making the bilgewater stink most vilely, so that those whose cabins lay far below … had but little sleep.

A similar description was written more than 200 years earlier, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The poem tells of a ship cursed by a sailor’s foolish decision to shoot down an albatross, a large white seabird. He had “killed the bird that made the breeze to blow,” and the ship was soon mired in the doldrums. Here’s how Coleridge described it.

Day after day, day after day, 

We stuck, nor breath nor motion; 

As idle as a painted ship 

Upon a painted ocean. 

 

Water, water, every where, 

And all the boards did shrink; 

Water, water, every where, 

Nor any drop to drink. 

I’m sure you’ve heard those lines before! I had, but I never knew they were from this poem.

Note that the doldrums indeed are a specific place—that belt we discussed, some five degrees above and below the equator. But they can also refer more generally to any place where the wind disappears and the ocean lies still; and figuratively to refer to anything that moves sluggishly.

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