Ennui is a word that is used to describe a state of listlessness or dissatisfaction. It is often used interchangeably with “boredom,” as both words describe a similar mental state. Ennui can be caused by a lack of interest in the surrounding environment, or by a general lack of activity which promotes a bored, listless state. Many people experience this at some point in their lives, and there are a variety of ways to combat the feeling.
The history of this word is long and quite tangled. It started out in Latin, as mihi in odio est, which means, more or less, “I dislike.” In later Vulgar Latin, the phrase was corrupted into inodiare, “to make odious,” which was borrowed by the French for ennuyer, “to annoy or bore.” In the 13th century, the English picked up the word, turning into “annoy,” while it evolved into ennui in French, for boredom. Members of the 17th century English nobility started using the new French word to describe their state of dissatisfaction in polite company, and it has been used ever since.
Ennui can take a number of forms. Among the 17th century leisure classes, for example, women often complained of this feeling because of the stifling lives they led. Restricted to only a few approved activities, many noblewomen found themselves deeply dissatisfied with their lot in life, complaining to friends and neighbors, many of whom were in the same plight.
Many people attribute ennui to members of the upper classes, while using “boredom” to describe the same state among people in the lower classes, perhaps because “ennui” sounds more cultivated. The term is also used among members of the artistic community. Musicians and other performers are sometimes described as being in such a state brought about by disinterest in their fame and followers, for example, while artists may complain about how it is impacting the quality of their work.
People can safely use “boredom” and “ennui” more or less interchangeably, should they so desire. “Ennui” certainly sounds more respectable; a person might choose the term to describe the experience of sitting in a dull lecture, for example, while sticking to “boredom” for days spent sitting at home.