by Mary Ann Mazey
Published at 2013-10-18
Mid-October is that wonderful time of year when the air takes on a fresh new chill, the leaves turn their rich autumn colours … and rubber bats hang in doorways, cotton cobwebs appear in corners, and cardboard cut-outs of black cats, jack-o-lanterns, and monsters peer out from the doors and windows of homes and stores.
It’s fairly well known that the word Halloween (now more commonly — and officially — spelled without its origin-indicative apostrophe) comes from All Hallows’ Eve[n] or All Saints’ Eve. These two names are interchangeable: while most people are probably more familiar with the adjectival form of hallow, as in “hallowed ground,” as a noun it refers to a “saint or holy person.” Or, according to the final instalment of the Harry Potter series, a consecrated object.
But what are the origins of some other common Halloween-y words that inevitably poke their (undead) heads up as October 31 approaches? I did some digging (pun intended) and here are a few of my favourite finds.
Zombie: Most sources I perused point to early-nineteenth-century West African and Haitian origins for this word. Probable contributors to zombie include the Kikongo word zumbi, meaning “fetish,” and the Kimbundu word nzúmbi, meaning “ghost.” There is also the Haitian Creole word zonbi or zombi, meaning “spirit that reanimates the dead.” Some also speculate on the similarity of zombie to sombra, which means “shadow” or “shade” in Spanish.
Note that none of these definitions includes “insatiable hunger for human flesh.” That characteristic of zombies is a twentieth-century invention. And so is blaming zombification on a highly contagious virus, as most modern zombie narratives do. George A. Romero and his legacy aside, traditionally the belief was that zombies were not only created but also controlled by voodoo priests called bokors and that their victims didn’t necessarily even have to be deceased; it was thought that the voodoo priest could induce a near-deathlike state in his would-be zombie, giving him power over the mindless, but still living, body.
For a great zombie story, read Neil Gaiman’s “Bitter Grounds.”*
Werewolf: The “were” in werewolf comes from the Old English wer, meaning “man.” In other words, some alternative types of fictional “were-” beasts really should not, as they sometimes do, retain ferocious or even wolfish characteristics. There should be nothing especially fearsome about a were-butterfly, were-hamster, or were-rabbit, for example. Bunnicula, on the other hand, is quite another matter …
Ghoul: Fans of Batman comics or films, and the Dark Knight’s nemesis Ra’s al Ghul, might already be familiar with the origin of this word. We get ghoul from the Arabic word ghul, which refers to a demon or evil spirit — specifically, a malevolent, grave-robbing, corpse-eating evil spirit.
For a creepy tale about some “ghoulish” art, check out Pickman’s Model by master of the macabre H.P. Lovecraft. Also, the word demon reminded me of one of my favourite (though ghoul-less) spooky stories, “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen.
Boo! Why do ghosts say “boo”? After considerable online research, I still don’t know. Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that, as has been noted about bo, its likely earlier form, boo is an ideal consonant-vowel combination for shouting loudly to startle someone. Or perhaps it has something to do with the secondary definition of boo, “to show disapproval.” After all, ghosts who haunt and try to scare away the living are unequivocally expressing their disapproval with the presence of others on their turf.
Or, most fun of all, perhaps part of the reason ghosts say boo is that it is “imitative of the lowing of oxen” (according to the OED). While I have no hard evidence to support this theory, I like to imagine some poor traveller on a lonely country road late at night being frightened out of his wits by the local livestock and attributing the noise to the supernatural.
*The Editing Company is not responsible for the typos, missing words, and other egregious errors found in the full-text versions of the stories I link to here. Some of them could really have used our editing and proofreading services!