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16 Scary Sayings for 'Ghost' From Across the United States

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On Halloween, the spirits of the dead are supposed to walk the earth with the living. Whether or not you believe that, or in ghosts in general, you might want to know what you’re getting into if you hear a South Carolina native mention a plat-eye or a Maine resident warn you about swogons. Familiarize yourself with these U.S. regional slang terms for familiar spirits from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. SKOOKUM

Referring to a ghost, demon, or spirit, skookum is chiefly a Northwest term and comes from a language of the Chinook Native American peoples of the Pacific Northwest. In the Northwest and Alaska, skookum as an adjective means strong, powerful, or good, while a skookum house is a jail and a skookum chuck is a turbulent channel of water.

2. TOMMYKNOCKER

More than just a Stephen King novel, tommyknocker has been used in the West since at least the early 20th century to mean a ghost that lives in a mine. It also refers to the knocking noises that said ghost is supposed to make. This ghost sense comes from the English dialect word tommyknocker meaning a “hammer used to break ore."

3. HAUNT

In the South and South Midland states, a haunt or hant is a ghost or spirit. The earliest definitions of haunt weren’t ghostly at all: According to the OED, the word originated in the 13th century to mean to practice habitually or to frequent a place. Around 1576, it gained the figurative meaning of memories, cares, feelings, thoughts, etc. that distract one frequently. In 1597, the term wandered into the supernatural. From Richard III: “Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed." Almost 300 years later, it finally came to refer to a spirit or ghost.

4. HOT HANT

You might run into a hot hant or hot steam the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Alabama. In Ben Burman’s 1938 book, Blow for a Landing, hot hants are hot because "they’ve gone to hell.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, a hot steam is described as "somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too.”

5. BUGABOO

This ghostly South and South Midland expression might also refer to an imaginary monster or the devil. In use since at least 1710, the OED says the word might come from the now obscure meaning of bug, an imaginary evil spirit (the insect meaning came later), and might also be influenced by boo. Also boogerboo and bugabo.

6. BOOGER

Careful if someone from the South or South Midland states says you have a booger—they could mean something more frightening than a piece of snot. The word originated in the 1750s to mean a despicable man, according to the OED, and came to mean a menacing supernatural creature in the 1820s (and dried nasal mucus in 1891).

7. DUPPY

In Alabama and Louisiana, you might say duppy for ghost. According to DARE, the word comes from Bube, a Bantu language of West Africa. OED’s earliest citation in English is from British historian Edward Long’s 1774 book, The History of Jamaica (“Those of deceased friends are duppies”) while DARE’s is from a 1919 issue of the Journal of American Folklore: “ … the ghost-story, the tale based on a belief about ‘hants’ or ‘bugies’ or ‘duppies.’”

8. HIDE-BEHIND

Also high-behind and nigh-behind, this term refers to a ghost or imaginary creature that always hides behind some object. Henry Tryon’s 1939 book Fearsome Critters describes the hide-behind as a 6-foot-tall “highly dangerous animal” with “grizzly-like claws.” Conveniently enough, it’s “never known to attack an inebriate.” According to Vance Randolph’s 1951 We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks, the monster is “a lizard as big as a bull” that “lies in wait for human beings on the trails at night.”

9. CATAWAMPUS

An imaginary monster or hobgoblin in the South and South Midland states, the word also means fierce, unsparing, and destructive, according to the OED, and originated as a humorous formation, the first part of which might have been influenced by catamount, a puma or cougar.

10. SWOGON

This Maine term for a spirit might come from Swamp Swogon as quoted in Holman Day’s Up in Maine: “For even in these days P.I.’s shake / At the great Swamp Swogon of Brassua Lake./ When it blitters and glabbers the long night through,/ And shrieks for the souls of the shivering crew.” Another Maine word, swogun (also spelled swagin, swagan, and other variations) refers to bean soup.

11. AKUA

In Hawaii, an akua is a god, spirit, or supernatural being. The OED has atua, which it says is a Polynesian word with the same meaning.

12. STEPNEY

This expression is used among Gullah speakers on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. It could mean hunger or hard times, and may also be personified as a malevolent spirit. However, where the word comes from isn’t clear.

13. PLAT-EYE

Careful of plat-eyes if you’re roaming around in South Carolina at night. These hobgoblins or malevolent spirits are said to rise out of graves. Platt-eye prowl refers to the time of night they’re said to roam.

14. GO-DEVIL

Another South Carolina expression, a go-devil is an evil spirit or someone made up to look like one. The term also refers to various machines and devices in agriculture, forestry, the oil industry, and logging.

15. HAG OR HAG SPIRIT

While commonly known as a witch, in the Southeast a hag or hag spirit might also refer to the evil spirit of a dead person. Said spirit is supposed to cause nightmares by “riding” the luckless dreamer. Hag-ridden, according to the OED, means afflicted by nightmares or oppressed in the mind.

16. RAWHEAD AND BLOODYBONES

In addition to being an excellent name for a death metal band, rawhead and bloodybones is a South and South Midland expression for a specter or hobgoblin. It’s an old term: DARE’s earliest citation in American English is from 1637, while in British English it's 1566, according to the OED. The rawhead part is terrifyingly and "typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin,” while bloodybones is sometimes described as a bogeyman who lurks in ponds “waiting to drown children.”

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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

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

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.

1. LONGFELLOW, MINNEAPOLIS

If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.

2. FROGTOWN, ST. PAUL

Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.

3. POWDERHORN PARK, MINNEAPOLIS

What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.

4. COMO PARK, ST. PAUL

That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.

5. HOLLAND, MINNEAPOLIS

You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”

6. DAYTON’S BLUFF, ST. PAUL

Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.

7. BELTRAMI, MINNEAPOLIS

Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.

8. PAYNE-PHALEN, ST. PAUL

Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.

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