Existential dread, as a concept, is probably as old as existence itself. But these days, probably the most common shorthand we use to describe it is the "Sunday Scaries," a term that refers to the general sense of dread we feel in anticipation of the coming week. Like clockwork, the inevitability of Monday announces itself via Sunday Scaries memes on Twitter and Instagram. For those who venture into the analog world, there are chalkboard signs outside of bars, tempting passersby with cold beer, as a salve to their “Sunday Scaries.” Homebound googlers may find CBD gummies by the same name as the top result.
Last year, The Atlantic published a deep dive on the term in the context of modern workplace anxiety. The piece came out approximately one month before March 2020, when the pandemic forced millions of people to work from home, if they still had a job. Curiously, of all the things to collapse, the term “Sunday Scaries” was not one of them.
Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, our collective existential dread has arguably only increased. With loss, insecurity, and death as a near-constant, the feeling has become more generalized, equally smeared across the week; as a Mashable guide correctly stated at the beginning of 2021, the scaries now “hit different.” But why is this cutesy term hitting at all? As it turns out, it’s not a coincidence that this lighthearted label stuck.
Michael Adams, a linguist and English professor at Indiana University, told VICE the term is a type of “lexical deflection,” a cute-sounding euphemism for an unpleasant emotion that elides its emotional gravity. One might even understand it as functioning similarly to the term “lol,” which has become shorthand for almost every punctuation mark and emotion—and increasingly, anything except laughter.
Speaking with Adams, I asked him if the term functioned similarly to the trope in television and movies where a character will appear standing in the shower—hand propped against the wall and eyes cast down. As viewers, we recognize these moments as a shorthand for conveying that person is utterly defeated, without them having to say so.
Adams laughed at the comparison, but offered a more simple explanation. “It is a term that gives us access to what other people are feeling, even if we're not the ones who are feeling it right at that moment.” It also offers people a gentle, accessible way of referring to a shared experience that is complex and can be difficult to describe.
In 1946, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankel put the same feeling in more clinical terms: "Sunday Neurosis," or a “depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” The term not achieve widespread usage like the Scaries—nor did the “Sunday Blues,” which was used more in the early 2000s. Both lacked the humor and alliteration of Sunday Scaries.
“It's a word for the future,” Adams said. “And it's not just because it's catchy, and not just because it corresponds truly to a feeling that many people have, but it's both of those things. When something sits that well and sounds that good, it tends to stick in the lexicon.”
The feeling itself has been around for a long time, Adams said, recalling his own “scaries” as a child in the 60s, when he could feel his weekend slipping away. “There just wasn't a word for then," he said. "We all sat back and were dreading without talking to each other about it."
According to The Atlantic, the first known recorded instance of the "Sunday Scaries" was a 2009 entry in Urban Dictionary, though the definition it provided focused on the feelings that follow a “long hard week of boozing.” Since then, Adams said, the term has morphed in the modern lexicon to refer to a predicament that is more existential in nature than substance-based, and can occur to teetotalers just the same.
There is a glut of advice on how to address these scaries. People offer their own approaches to addressing this dread in the Atlantic article, ranging from trips to the museum (a marketer), to dismantling capitalism (Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation author Anne Helen Peterson). In case you want to look to capitalism for the answer, though, there is a 2018 blog from an early-stage VC firm on how to keep the Sunday Scaries at bay.
Given that the term is so catchy, it's not surprising that companies are using it to hawk their wares, such as the company selling CBD gummies. “They didn't come up with a new term for it,” Adams said. “And that's because they didn't have to. Because ‘Sunday Scaries’ is already tailor-made as a commercial brand name.” Sunday Scaries®, also offers CBD products for dogs with FOMO bones. Unrelated to the CBD products, there is a Sunday Scaries podcast, which illustrates the phenomenon as the intersection of “Hangover,” “Anxiety,” and “Sunday.”
An expert on slang, Adams wrote Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, a book focusing on the show’s impact on language. One example is its popularization of the construction “blank much?”—such as saying “walk much?” in response to watching a friend trip on the sidewalk. This slang and the “scaries” are similar in their simple notation of a complex thought, Adams said. They both also make for “fantastic for Instagram captions.”
Decades later, “blank much” is widespread to the point of cliche. “You've got 60 and 70-year-old politicians, members of House of Representatives, saying the sentence, ‘Double standard much?’" he says. In the same way, Adams imagines children will take the “Sunday Scaries” term and make it their own, not knowing the hangover-related origins.
“I reflect on the fact that my almost nine-year-old daughter will sometimes say ‘get wrecked’ as some type of interjection. In the same way the bar black blackboards could say, ‘Come on in and get wrecked.’ Kids would pick up on that, but not know what it means.”
Follow Ashwin Rodrigues on Twitter.