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 Mold and Mildew?

iStock.com/AndreasReh
iStock.com/AndreasReh

We’re all familiar with colorful spots of something growing in our showers and in other dark, damp areas in our homes, but you may not know what to call it. Is it mold, or is it mildew? What is the difference between the two, anyway?

Both terms refer to fungus, but as it happens, it’s a squares-versus-rectangles situation. Mildew is a type of mold. The term typically describes fungi that grows flat, on surfaces like the walls of your shower or window sills. There are also several types of mildew that are specific to plants—powdery mildew and downy mildew are parasites that grow on certain trees, flowers, and crops, for example. While mold might be a colorful green or black, mildew is typically white.

The word mildew originally came from honeydew, a term for sticky secretions aphids and other insects leave on plants, which people used to think came from the sky, like dew. Eventually, the word came to refer to the mold caused by the fungi that fed on these secretions.

Leaves covered in white powder
Powdery mildew on maple leaves
iStock.com/kazakovmaksim

Most of the household growths we refer to as mold belong to just a few families of fungi species. According to the CDC, the most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Alternaria. Household molds can be a variety of colors, from orange-brown to green to gray to black. (Note that not all mold that is black in color is the more toxic species we call “black mold,” or Stachybotrys.) In contrast to the powdery texture of mildew, molds are typically fuzzy or slimy.

In nature, mold can play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down dead plants and leaves. In your house, those decomposition abilities aren’t quite so welcome. Mold spores fly through the air, and when they land in moist places, they start to grow—whether that’s on food, your ceiling, paper products, wood, carpet, leather, or elsewhere around your house—and in the process, destroy whatever they're growing on. Unlike mildew, most molds grow down into the surface of its habitat, making them more difficult to remove. In porous materials, mold grows into all the empty crevices, which is why it is often impossible to remove all the mold from ceiling tiles (or soft foods like bread).

Mold growing under a windowsill and near the carpet of a home
Mold growing in a Nashville home following a flood
Martin Grube, FEMA // Public Domain

Getting rid of the unsightly growth in your damp bathroom is more than just a matter of aesthetics. Indoor mold can cause allergic reactions, such as a stuffy nose or itchy eyes, and can lead to infections for people with compromised immune systems. Some people are more sensitive to mold than others, and may experience more symptoms when exposed to it. Generally speaking, though, mold spores are everywhere, so you’re never going to live a totally mold-free life. Spores will come into your home through windows, doorways, ventilation and climate control systems, and via your clothing, shoes, and pets.

But there’s only one way to effectively inhibit mold growth at home: Get rid of the moisture. That means fixing leaks, getting better ventilation, and possibly running a dehumidifier, according to the CDC’s recommendations on mold.

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 Happens to Films Selected for Preservation by the Library of Congress?

iStock
iStock

On Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress announced its latest slate of movies selected for permanent safekeeping in the National Film Registry. As always, the picks varied widely. The National Film Registry’s class of 2018 includes Cinderella (1950), My Fair Lady (1964), Jurassic Park (1993), The Shining (1980), Smoke Signals (1998), and the animated short Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People (1984), which was produced by Ayoka Chenzira, one of the first black female animators.

Originally established in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act tasks the board with selecting American films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant. They can pick up to 25 per year, and the movies must be at least 10 years old. The National Film Preservation Board is made up of representatives from a number of industry organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics. With the new selections, there are 750 films in the registry.

Selection for the registry is an honor, of course, but what does it mean beyond that? How does the Library of Congress, the U.S. legislature’s storage agency for documents and media, go about preserving movies?

According to Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, selection implores the Library of Congress to get the best possible copy of the film in its original format and store it in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ensures the film will be available to future generations.

For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. “We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,” Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original Star Wars was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.

For older and more esoteric selections like newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and early technical achievements in filmmaking, Leggett says the library often seeks out a copy from the community of preservationists. Universities, private foundations, and hobbyists that preserve old films might get a call from the Library of Congress if they have a good copy of a National Film Registry selection. In rare cases, the library will barter for the film, using redundant materials on its shelves. Other times, it will make a copy or pay the archivist to make a new 35 millimeter copy for them. The Culpeper facility stores nitrate prints, the original film stock for many early movies, in specialty lockers because the material is highly volatile and flammable.

Silent films can be tricky because studios often released, revised, and then re-released versions of the film. When one is selected, Library of Congress archivists collect as many aspects and versions of the film as they can, which might mean contacting several studios and archivists.

Of particular challenge in 2015 was the induction of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves’s quasi-documentary of his 1968 theatrical project staged in Central Park. The film was screened often through the years, as Greaves gained a cult following. It was released on DVD in 2006, but the National Film Preservation Act specified that the library should seek a copy in the original format, which it didn’t have. Leggett said Greaves’s 1968 original cut was “lost,” but the library worked with the late filmmaker's estate to create a new 35 millimeter version that resembled it.

The Audio-Visual Conservation Center itself, buried on a mountainside, has storage space controlled to stay cool and dry. “A film could survive for hundreds of years there,” Leggett says. He admits the audiovisual center wouldn’t survive a nuclear strike—in the event of World War III, the world might lose its best copy of Buster Keaton’s The General—“but it did survive an earthquake with all materials intact.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER