“What’s it supposed to mean?” asked a sixth former. He had been sitting in a bus behind a girl whose T-shirt carried the legend ‘Follow your dream.’

“Seriously, what does it mean? How would you put that into Latin? somnium tuum sequere? What would that mean to a Roman? And wouldn’t the same would go for a Greek if you said δίωκε τὸν ὄνειρον?  I’ll tell you what it means: it’s American English for ‘do what you want.’”

I thought this was harsh, while admiring his zeal to detect semantic shifts—and his readiness to use dictionaries. I told a colleague, who enlarged on the theme: yes, he said, this is an Americanism, and the word dream is now used to sell houses and holidays—and also to inveigle the young into show business and commercial sport. And on that subject, he added, why are we becoming a nation of performers while the Chinese are producing and manufacturing things?  A bell rang at this point.

Some of this may be true, but some is not. This sense of dream may not have anything to correspond in Latin or Greek, but it has some pedigree in English, as appears from the OED, which has a long entry for the word. Its use in England to mean a national or personal aspiration seems to go back to the 18th century, though with a flavour of something unlikely or ill-advised.

By 7th Feb 1916, however, it has become something to admire. The OED quotes from the Chicago Tribune for that date: ‘If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.’

And Martin Luther King sealed its respectability in 1963: ‘I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Neither somnium nor ὄνειρος is used in this way, as our student discovered. In classical literature, however, a dream in its original sense may be sent by a god to advise, to warn, or to mislead. They often appear at some pivotal moment, as does—among others in the Bible—Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven in Genesis 28.