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.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

welcomia/iStock via Getty Images
welcomia/iStock via Getty Images

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the more than 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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11 Old-Fashioned Terms to Bring Back for Valentine’s Day

This 'dimber cove' is 'bughouse' for his 'dainty duck' on Valentine's Day.
This 'dimber cove' is 'bughouse' for his 'dainty duck' on Valentine's Day.
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

Valentine’s Day is the opportune holiday to express all the lovey-dovey feelings you may not usually take the time to put into words—simply calling your partner “pretty” on the most romantic day of the year, however, might not exactly make the sparks fly. To help you get creative, here are 11 old-fashioned romance terms from the days of yore.

1. Bughouse

Decades before Beyoncé created a chart-topping melody to describe the feeling of being “crazy in love,” early 20th-century Americans simply called it “bughouse.”

2. Buss

Buss is an old-fashioned synonym of kiss that originated around 1570, possibly from the Middle English verb bassen, meaning “to kiss.” It also sounds fairly similar to a few kiss terms from Romance languages, like the French baiser, the Spanish beso, and Italian’s bacio.

3. Dainty duck

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pyramus refers to his lover, Thisbe, as a “dainty duck.” They didn’t exactly live happily ever after, but that’s no reason not to bring back dainty duck as an adorable (and alliterative) term of endearment.

4. Dimber

From stunning to hunky, there are plenty of satisfactory ways to call someone “attractive.” None, however, have quite as much old-timey appeal as dimber, a gender-neutral term for pretty from the 17th century. Dimber cove refers to a handsome man, while dimber mort is used for a pretty girl or woman.

5. Dulcinea

In Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the titular character nicknames a lovely peasant girl “Dulcinea,” derived from dulce, the Spanish word for sweet. Over time, people started using it as a general term for sweetheart.

6. Face Made of a Fiddle

If you find your partner irresistibly charming, you can tell them that they have a “face made of a fiddle”—a face so welcoming and attractive that it seems to mirror the smile-like curves of a fiddle. Just be careful not to confuse it with having a “face as long as a fiddle,” which describes a dismal, unhappy demeanor.

7. Jam Tart

Because Valentine’s Day is filled with sweet treats already, it’s only fitting that you’d replace the word heart with jam tart—a classic bit of Cockney rhyming slang for your ticker.

8. Prigster

If you’re fighting for the heart of a fair maiden, you can call your competitor a “prigster,” a word dating back to the 1670s that means “a rival in love.”

9. RILY

Lovers were expressing their feelings in shorthand long before the invention of texting—starting in the mid-1940s, telegrams sometimes contained the acronym RILY, for “Remember, I love you.”

10. Spoon

Engaging in a little foolish flirtation this Valentine’s Day? Your 19th-century ancestors might call that “spooning.”

11. Sugar Report

Sugar report caught on during World War II as a slang term for the letters that soldiers received from their wives and girlfriends back home. If you’re sending a lengthy email to your partner detailing your romantic itinerary for Valentine’s Day, feel free to type Sugar Report as the subject line.

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