On Halloween, witches and werewolves, ghosts and ghouls, and demons and devils stalk the streets for tricks or treats. But the real tricks and treats—at least for the horror-loving word nerds among us—might just be the strange and far-flung origins of these monster names.
The word witch flies in from Old English. The earliest record, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), refers to a male practitioner of sorcery and magic—wicca, also the source of the neopagan religion of the same name. Wicca is derived from wiccian, “to practice witchcraft.” The deeper roots of this verb are obscure, though etymologists have speculated on its relationship to Germanic words meaning holy or awaken. Over the centuries, witch’s masculine applications melted away, thanks in no small part to the historical persecution of many women believed to be witches.
Werewolf is another lexical beastie that prowled Old English. While the OED can date it back to 1000, the dictionary also notes the word was never in much use, except for among some Scottish speakers, until modern folklore scholarship revived it. Werewolves, we know, are men that turn into wolves—and that’s exactly what the word means. Were comes from an Old English word for man and is distantly related to the same Latin vir (man) which gives us words like virile and virtue. It’s not only wolves that could wear were. Some have told tales of werebears, weretigers, werefoxes, and even werehyenas.
Yeah, yeah, Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster: It’s the name of his creator, Victor, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Frankenstein is German surname and place-name, roughly meaning “stone of the Franks.” The Franks, or “freemen,” were a Germanic tribe whose name also survives in frank, and French. Some believe Shelley was inspired by her travels in Germany, which took her near Frankenstein Castle.
They say vampires can live forever, but the word is relatively young as far as the English language is concerned. It doesn’t come out of the dark until the early 1700s, borrowed from the French vampire, itself taken from a Slavonic source by way of Hungary. But the etymological flight of vampire may not be over: One Eastern European linguist has argued vampire ultimately comes from a northern Turkish word, uber, meaning witch. (Any connection to the transportation company is coincidental.) And the name of that most famous vampire, Dracula, is actually related to another mythical creature: the dragon.
Back in the 1400s, mummy referred to a bituminous substance (think asphalt). This sounds far from ghastly until you consider that the specific material was used as a medicine prepared from mummified human flesh. Its French (mommie) and Latin (mumia) sources also named a substance used to embalm corpses. Latin directly borrowed (via Salerno, the leading medieval school of medicine located in Italy) its mumia from the Arabic mumiya, “bitumen.” The Arabic is said to preserve a Persian root meaning wax. It wasn’t until the 1600s that mummy, used for Egyptian mummification, actually named those de-organed, embalmed corpses. And it wasn’t until 1930s Hollywood that Boris Karloff gives us the monster, The Mummy.
It may not be too surprising that mummy comes from Arabic, what with Ancient Egypt and all. But ghoul? Yes, this word also comes from the Middle East. In Arabic mythology, a ghoul, or ghul, robbed graves and ate corpses. The root is a verb that means, appropriately, “to seize.” The word started marauding English thanks to a 1780s translation of an Arabic tale.
Where there are ghouls there are goblins, at least if the Halloween stock phrase is any measure. This name of this mischievous, ugly folk creature might come from the Greek kobalos, a kind of scoundrel. According to this etymological theory, kobalos passed into Latin and then French, where Gobelinus is documented as the name for a spirit haunting the city of Evreux in the Middle Ages. Goblin enters English by the 1350s. A hobgoblin, a related impish creature, features hob, which comes from a shortened nickname for Robert, as it is for Robin Goodfellow, an English puck many will know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Demon is another word from Ancient Greek. In that tongue, a daimon variously signified a god, divinity, attendant spirit, or even the force of fate itself. The base of this daimon is a Greek verb meaning “to divide.” The ancients envisioned the Fates divvying out people’s lots in life. Demon went to the dark side when Greek authors used it to translate Hebrew terms for baddies in the Old Testament.
Like daimon, the Greek diabolos was a biblical Greek translation of the Hebrew word satan in the Old Testament. The Hebrew satan means an adversary, literally an “obstructor” or “plotter-against.” The Greek diabolos, a slanderer or accuser, picks up on this idea, as it literally means “one who throws something across the path of another.” The words symbol and ballistics share a root with it. Old English rendered diabolos a deofol.
Like mummies, zombies are also corpses brought back to life. But unlike mummy, zombie was brought into English not from the Middle East but from West Africa. The Kikongo language spoken around the Congo has nzambi (which, according to zombie experts Hans-W. Ackermann and Jeanine Gauthier, “designates the creator god of many Bantu peoples,” as well as meaning “spirit of a dead person”) and zumbi (fetish) may have had an influence on the word (though Ackermann and Gauthier note there are many words in West and Central African langua-ges phonetically similar to zombie). Via the slave trade, zombie made its way to Haiti, with the word popping up in English as early as 1788 to describe “the spirits of dead wicked men, that are permitted to wander, and torment the living.” Only later would it become explicitly corpses magically raised from the dead. Other scholars have speculated, though, that zombie might be a Louisiana Creole word from the Spanish sombra, a shade or ghost.
Speaking of ghosts, they’ve been long haunting English. The Old English gast meant spirit, including good ones, bad ones, and, well, holy ones. (The h creeped in thanks to Dutch and Flemish cognates.) Forms of ghost are indeed found throughout the Germanic languages, possibly all coming from an Indo-European root referring to fear or amazement. Ghost settles into its modern meaning—an apparition of a dead person—in the 14th century.
One place you can genuinely catch sight of this large, hairy hominid is out on the streets during Halloween. Another name for Bigfoot, Sasquatch likely comes from the Halkomelem language, spoken by many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The word entered English thanks to a 1929 article in Maclean’s that quoted an “old hunter” as saying “The strange people, of whom there are but few now—rarely seen and seldom met ... are known by the name of Sasquatch, or, ‘the hairy mountain men.’”
Finally, the Sasquatch’s snowy counterpart is the Yeti, said to trek the Himalayas. According to Etymonline, even though the creature looms large in our imaginations, it comes from the Sherpa yeh-teh, a “small manlike animal,” though it might more literally be rendered as “rocky bear.” And thanks to a 1921 journalist reporting on a Mt. Everest expedition, we have the Abominable Snowman. The journalist translated the Tibetan metoh kangmi, another name for the Yeti, as “abominable snowman.” Later, he explained that he had gotten it wrong, and it more closely meant “filthy snowman”—though decades after that, an alternate explanation emerged that metoh and kangmi were just two words for the same animal.
This story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.