10 Words With Spooky Etymologies

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Ghosts, ghouls and monsters turn up everywhere at Halloween—including in our language. From treacherous underground goblins to ghostly roaming primates, here are the spooky origins of 10 familiar words.

1. AGHAST

Although it’s used much more loosely in English today, the word aghast literally means “frightened by a ghost.” That’s because the “ghast” of aghast is a derivative of the Old English word gæsten, meaning “to terrify,” which is in turn a derivative of gæst, the Old English word for “ghost.” The “gast” of flabbergast, incidentally, probably comes from the same root.

2. BUGABOO

Bugaboo has been used since the early 1700s to refer to an imagined problem or bugbear (although oddly, in 19th century English, it was also used as a nickname for a bailiff). The word itself has two possible origins, both of which are equally ghoulish: It might come from an old Celtic word (most likely bucca-boo, an old Cornish word for a devil or spectre), or it might come from “Bugibu,” the name of a monstrous demon that appeared in a Medieval French poem, Aliscans, written in the mid-1100s.

3. COBALT

The chemical element cobalt takes its name from the “kobold,” a type of devious subterranean hobgoblin in German folklore. Described in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) as “a species of gnomes who haunted the dark and solitary places,” the kobolds were once believed to inhabit the rocks and tunnels of mineshafts, where they would reward those miners who respected them with rich discoveries, and would punish any others with rockfalls, poisonous fumes and underground fires. The kobold’s connection to cobalt stems from the fact that two of the element’s most important ores—namely cobaltite and smaltite—both contain an equivalent amount of arsenic, which makes mining for them a particularly hazardous business. Long before the harmful nature of these metals was known to science, however, any miners who fell ill collecting cobalt would be left with little option but to blame their misfortune on the treacherous kobolds.

4. LARVA

In Latin, larva originally meant “ghost” or “ghoul,” and when the word first began to be used in English in the mid-1600s, it meant precisely that. But because the ghosts and ghouls of antiquity were often portrayed as wearing a disguise to hide amongst the world of the living, in Latin larva also came to mean “mask,” and it was this figurative sense that the 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus meant when he began to call the juvenile forms of insects larvae in the 1740s.

5. LEMUR

Carl Linnaeus was also responsible for the word lemur, which he stole from the ghoulish Lemures of Ancient Rome. To the Romans, the Lemures were the skeletal, zombie-like ghosts of murder victims, executed criminals, sailors lost at sea, and anyone else who had died leaving unfinished business behind them on Earth. According to Roman tradition, ultimately the Lemures would return to haunt the world of the living each night—and hence when Linnaeus discovered a group of remarkably human-like primates wandering silently around the tropical rainforests in the dead of night, he had the perfect name for them.

6. MASCOT

We might use it more generally to mean an emblem or symbol, but a mascot was originally a talisman or charm, namely something intended to be used to protect someone from harm. In this sense the word is derived from masca, an old Provençal French word for a witch or sorceress.

7. MINDBOGGLING

The “boggle” of mindboggling is derived from an old Middle English word, bugge, for an invisible ghost or monster. These bugges (or “bogles” as they became known) could not be seen by human eyes, but could supposedly be seen by animals: a spooked horse that reared up for no apparent reason would once have been said to have seen a bogle.

8. NICKEL

Like cobalt, nickel takes its name from another ghoul from German folklore, known as the Kupfernickel, or “copper-demon.” Unlike the kobolds, however, nickels were more mischievous than dangerous and would simply trick unsuspecting miners into thinking they had discovered copper, when in fact they had discovered nickel, which was comparatively less valuable. Like the kobolds, however, the nickels had to be placated and respected, else they could cause cave-ins or other underground disasters.

9. TERABYTE

The “tera” of words like terabyte, terawatt, and terahertz is derived from the Greek word for “monster,” teras. The words teratism, meaning “a monstrosity,” and teratology, “the study of biological abnormalities,” are derived from the same root.

10. ZEITGEIST

If a poltergeist is literally a “noisy ghost” in German, then a zeitgeist is simply a “spirit of the age”—that is to say, something that seems to sum up the era in which it exists.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

Merriam-Webster Declares They Its Word of the Year

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artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year is one that you probably use about a dozen times a day: they.

It’s been a big year for the gender-neutral pronoun, whose definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was expanded to include its use as a singular nonbinary pronoun in September.

CNN notes that searches for they on the Merriam-Webster site have increased 313 percent over last year’s data, but the Word of the Year isn’t determined by growth alone. As Merriam-Webster senior editor and lexicographer Emily Brewster explained on WRSI, a word also needs to have considerable search spikes throughout the year in order to qualify.

“That says to us that a word is significant for that particular year; that it has some kind of important association with the actual year,” she said.

And they definitely had several landmark search spikes in 2019. According to CNN, look-ups peaked when nonbinary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week in January, when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal disclosed that her child was gender-nonconforming in April, and during Pride celebrations around the world in June (this year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots). Many major style guides, including the Associated Press, have recognized they as an accepted singular pronoun in the past few years.

In addition to the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also published their top 10 most-searched terms, which paint an intriguing portrait of 2019 in review. There were political terms like quid pro quo, impeach, and clemency, the word the—which spiked after The Ohio State University tried to trademark it in August—and the enigmatic word camp, which baffled many a fashion blogger as the theme of the Met Gala in May.

[h/t CNN]

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