Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?

iStock
iStock

People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

iStock.com/dusipuffi
iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER