It’s Halloween. Many of you will be attending costume parties tonight. No doubt you’re putting a lot of thought into your costume, and perhaps a lot of time, effort, and/or money. But it has been my experience that most costume-partygoers aren’t mentally prepared for the whole party. You make your entrance. Everybody congratulates you on your costume. You congratulate your fellow partygoers on their costumes. But then you find yourself standing in a living room with a paper plate of hors d’oeuvres in one hand, the head of your T-rex costume under your other arm, and a whole evening of small talk stretching out before you. What are you going to talk about?

I am here for you, partygoers. This special Halloween episode of The Habit Weekly will give you all the small-talk fodder you need to get through any awkward silences that descend on your Halloween parties. I realize there are no shortcuts to popularity. I can’t promise you immediate entree to the in-crowd. But it can’t hurt to have a few Halloween-related word histories in your back pocket when the conversation starts to flag.

Let us start with the word ghost. Ghost comes from the Anglo-Saxon gast, which just means breath or spirit. The terms Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit, as you know, are interchangeable. The Anglo-Saxon gast and the Latin spiritus are very much equivalent on four levels at least. Both can mean:

  • physical breath (think respiration)
  • the spirit of a living person or animal
  • the Spirit of God
  • ghosts, ghouls, sprites, etc.

The German form of ghost or gast is geist, which you may know from zeitgeist(the spirit of the age) and poltergeist (literally a noisy or rumbly ghost). 

The vowel change from gast to gost was an organic change, the kind of thing that happens naturally in language. But somewhere along the line, the “h” got added to the spelling, probably in imitation of the Dutch cognate gheest. It is interesting that in the words aghast (literally, feeling like one has seen a ghost) and ghastly (ghostly) the organic vowel change never happened, but the artificial spelling change did. After centuries of being spelled agast and gastly, that “h” got added, no doubt to match the spelling of ghost.

Another spirit-related word that you might find interesting: The Greek word for spirit is daimon. When Aristotle speaks of happiness he uses the word eudaimonia, or good-spirits. (In this wildly popular TED talk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about daimon, the related Latin term genius, and these words’ significance for writing and other creative endeavors.) In Greek, the connotations of daimon are mostly positive. But by the time daimon made it to English as demon, the connotation had become decidedly negative—not “spirit” broadly speaking, but specifically “evil spirit.”

While ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, and demons are disembodied, like breath, they often appear to have bodies—otherwise, how could you dress up like one? So there is a whole constellation of ghostly words related to the idea of appearance. The most obvious example is the word apparition. It is called an apparition both because it tends to appear out of nowhere and because it has the appearance (but only the appearance) of physical form. Specter is a similar word, deriving from the Latin spectare, meaning “to look” or “to watch.” Think spectacle (a thing to look at) or spectator (one who looks a thing). A specter is something you can look at but never touch. In much the same way, the word phantasm derives ultimately from the Greek phantazein, “to make visible.” Related words are phantomfantastic, and phantasmagorical.

You can’t talk about ghosts without talking about haunting. As I was researching for this letter, I was especially interested by the history of the word haunt. When it first came into the language, to haunt (or hant) simply meant “to practice habitually”; soon it took on the meaning “to frequent a place.” Schoolboys in the 1300s were said to “haunt school.” But in the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest written record of the verb haunt being used to speak of ghosts or spirits was in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, in 1590. We speak of a person “going back to his old haunts.” I would have thought that was metaphorical language comparing a person to a ghost. As it turns out, it worked the other way around: to speak of ghosts haunting a place is to compare ghosts to people frequenting a place. By the original definition, it’s occupied houses that are haunted, not abandoned houses!

The word goblin, “a mischievous and ugly demon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary  probably comes from from the Greek kobalos, “impudent rogue, knave.”  My new favorite fact about goblins is that they appear in the Wycliffe Bible (late fourteenth century): “Thou shalt not drede of an arowe fliynge in the dai, or a gobelyn goynge in derkneissis” (Psalm 91:5).

Ghoul derives from the Arabic ghul, a grave-robbing, corpse-eating demon. The word seems only to have been around in English since 1780; a British novelist borrowed it, and it caught on immediately. Given its relative recency and the fact that it derives from Arabic rather than Germanic, I’m a little surprised that Tolkien (apparently) borrowed ghoul or ghul to create the word nazgul (“ring-wraith”).

As long as we’re on the subject of Tolkien and nazguls, I should probably mention the word wizard. It literally means something along the lines of “wise guy.” The first syllable wiz- is a form of wise, and that second syllable -ard is a suffix that turns an adjective into a name for a person—sometimes a literal name, as in Richard or Edward, but more often as common noun, usually with pejorative connotations, as in coward, bastard, drunkard, and laggard.

The word witch has a very straightforward history. The word in Anglo-Saxon was wicca (masculine) or wicce (feminine). That “cc” was pronounced “ch.” So really, only the spelling has changed. And you also see where the modern-day terms Wicca and Wiccan came from. 

Ok. Let us move from the spooky to the macabre. The word macabre came to English from the French term danse macabre, or “dance of death.” The danse macabre was an artistic convention whereby a personification of Death was shown dancing with mortals from every sphere of life. But that still doesn’t explain where the word macabre comes from, since macabre didn’t mean anything in French before the term danse macabre came along. It’s a bit of a mystery, but the most likely explanation seems to be related to the Maccabees, the ancient Jews who rebelled against their Greek overlords and were slaughtered. 

The word corpse comes from the Latin corpus. In Latin, the word just means body, alive or dead—consider the corpus of an author (her body or work), or the Marine Corps (many Marines operating as one body) or the words corporeal (bodily) and incorporeal (not bodily). Cadaver, on the other hand, derives from the Latin cadere, “to fall” (think decadence, a fall into moral turpitutde, or cadence, the rise and fall of rhythmic language). A cadaver is a body that has fallen in death. And as long as we’re being morbid, the –cide suffix derives from cadere as well—homicide, suicide, fratricide, etc.

Skeleton derives from a Greek word meaning “dried up.” A mummy or skeleton was called a skeleton soma (literally, a “dried-up body”) in ancient Greek.  The word skull, on the other hand, probably came to us from the Vikings. Apparently it comes from Old Norse for skull, skalli. We have the Vikings to thank for a lot of our less pleasant words, by the way: ugly, angry, weak, ransack, slaughter, blunder, and awkward are just a few of the Old Norse words that came into English with the Viking invasions of the 9th-11th centuries.

One Anglo-Saxon term for skull was haefod-bolle—literally, “head-bowl.” I’m sorry that one died out. The Anglo-Saxon poets had a gift for making things seem a little more vivid and gruesome than they had to. After all, they referred to the (living) human body as a banhus—“bone-house.” 

All right friends. If that’s not enough material to make you the life of your Halloween party, I don’t know what else to tell you. Be safe out there.

BONUS From the archives: the origin of horror, terror, and other scary words.

Also, I should acknowledge that most of my research for this letter started with…and that most of the research on seems to start with the Oxford English Dictionary.

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