17 Scary Sayings for 'Ghost' From Across the United States
By Angela Tung
On Halloween, the spirits of the dead are supposed to walk the earth with the living. Whether or not you believe that, or in ghosts in general, you might want to know what you’re getting into if you hear a South Carolina native mention a plat-eye or a Maine resident warn you about swogons. Familiarize yourself with these spooky regional slang terms for the spectral from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).
Referring to a ghost, demon, or spirit, skookum is chiefly a Northwest term and comes from a language of the Chinook Native American peoples of the Pacific Northwest. In the Northwest and Alaska, skookum as an adjective means strong, powerful, or good, while a skookum house is a jail and a skookum chuck is a turbulent channel of water.
More than just a Stephen King novel, tommyknocker has been used in the West since at least the early 20th century to mean a ghost that lives in a mine. It also refers to the knocking noises that said ghost is supposed to make. This ghost sense comes from the English dialect word tommyknocker, meaning a “hammer used to break ore.”
In the South and South Midland states, a haunt or hant is a ghost or spirit. The earliest definitions of haunt weren’t ghostly at all: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 13th century to mean “to practice habitually” or “to frequent a place.” Around 1576, it gained the figurative meaning of memories, cares, feelings, thoughts, etc. that distract one frequently. In 1597, the term wandered into the supernatural. From Richard III: “Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed.” Almost 300 years later, it finally came to refer to a spirit or ghost.
4. And 5. Hot Hant or Hot Steam
You might run into a hot hant or hot steam in the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Alabama. In Ben Burman’s 1938 book, Blow for a Landing, hot hants are hot because “they’ve gone to hell.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, a hot steam is described as “somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too.”
This ghostly South and South Midland expression might also refer to an imaginary monster or the devil. In use since at least 1710, the OED says the word might come from the now obscure meaning of bug, an imaginary evil spirit (the insect meaning came later), and might also be influenced by boo. It can also bee seen as boogerboo and bugabo.
Careful if someone from the South or South Midland states says you have a booger—they could mean something more frightening than a piece of snot. The word originated in the 1750s to mean a despicable man, according to the OED, and came to mean a menacing supernatural creature in the 1820s (and dried nasal mucus in 1891).
In Alabama and Louisiana, you might say duppy for ghost. According to DARE, the word comes from Bube, a Bantu language of West Africa. The OED’s earliest citation in English is from British historian Edward Long’s 1774 book The History of Jamaica (“Those of deceased friends are duppies”), while DARE’s is from a 1919 issue of the Journal of American Folklore: “ … the ghost-story, the tale based on a belief about ‘hants’ or ‘bugies’ or ‘duppies.’”
Also high-behind and nigh-behind, this term refers to a ghost or imaginary creature that always hides behind some object. Henry Tryon’s 1939 book Fearsome Critters describes the hide-behind as a 6-foot-tall “highly dangerous animal” with “grizzly-like claws.” Conveniently enough, it’s “never known to attack an inebriate.” According to Vance Randolph’s 1951 We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks, the monster is “a lizard as big as a bull” that “lies in wait for human beings on the trails at night.”
A word for an imaginary monster or hobgoblin in the South and South Midland states, catawampus also means fierce, unsparing, and destructive, according to the OED, and originated as a humorous formation, the first part of which might have been influenced by catamount, a puma or cougar.
This Maine term for a spirit might come from Swamp Swogon as quoted in Holman Day’s Up in Maine: “For even in these days P.I.’s shake / At the great Swamp Swogon of Brassua Lake./ When it blitters and glabbers the long night through,/ And shrieks for the souls of the shivering crew.” Another Maine word, swogun (also spelled swagin, swagan, and other variations) refers to bean soup.
In Hawaii, an akua is a god, spirit, or supernatural being. The OED has atua, which it says is a Polynesian word with the same meaning.
This expression is used among Gullah speakers on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. It could mean hunger or hard times, and may also be personified as a malevolent spirit. Where the word comes from isn’t clear.
Careful of plat-eyes if you’re roaming around in South Carolina at night. These hobgoblins or malevolent spirits are said to rise out of graves. Platt-eye prowl refers to the time of night they’re said to roam.
Another South Carolina expression, a go-devil is an evil spirit or someone made up to look like one. The term also refers to various machines and devices in agriculture, forestry, the oil industry, and logging.
16. Hag (or Hag Spirit)
While commonly known as a witch, in the Southeast a hag or hag spirit might also refer to the evil spirit of a dead person. Said spirit is supposed to cause nightmares by “riding” the luckless dreamer. Hag-ridden, according to the OED, means afflicted by nightmares or oppressed in the mind.
17. Rawhead and Bloodybones
In addition to being an excellent name for a death metal band, rawhead and bloodybones is a South and South Midland expression for a specter or hobgoblin. It’s an old term: DARE’s earliest citation in American English is from 1637, while in British English it’s 1566, according to the OED, whose definitions for both words border on terrifying: rawhead refers to something that is “typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin,” while bloodybones is sometimes described as a bogeyman “said to lurk in ponds waiting to drown children.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.