Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The word ‘boredom’ arrived in the English language, along with the word ‘bore’, only after about 1750. Its origins are unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary more or less rejects the obvious figurative association between boring a hole and persistently annoying someone or piercing them with boredom. Based on the eighteenth-century phrase ‘French bore’, it suggests that the word might be of French origin, possibly from bourre, meaning padding and (by association) triviality, and bourrer, meaning to stuff or satiate.
Boredom is thus a relatively modern idea. Patricia Meyer Spacks (1995, ix) traces a shift from eighteenth-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual's personal responsibility or moral failing, to more sociological and fatalistic nineteenthcentury notions, which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. By the midnineteenth century, it was often seen as an illness: in Bleak House, Dickens (1948 , 392) refers to it as a ‘chronic malady’. Spacks (1995, 13) argues that this ‘reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power’. This notion of boredom might thus be seen as a specific response to modernity: the repetitiveness of factory and office work, the monotony of bureaucratic procedures, the regimented time of clocks and timetables.
If this is the case, then the antithesis of boredom should be travel, with its pursuit of the marvellous and exotic which Stephen Greenblatt (1991, 79–80) identifies as a recurring element of travel writing, one which constructs ‘abroad’ as a land of adventure distinguished by its otherness from ordinary life. One can see this in mementos of travel like the postcard, which could be viewed as an example of the ‘tourist gaze’, a way of experiencing exotic cultures which developed initially with new forms of travel based on eyewitness observation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see Urry 1990, 1–4). The postcard and other kinds of holiday souvenir are thus about acquiring and displaying cultural capital and marking one's significant life experiences as non-boring.
And yet the distinction between boredom and travel is more complicated than this.