10 Words With Spooky Etymologies

iStock
iStock

Ghosts, ghouls and monsters turn up everywhere at Halloween—including in our language. From treacherous underground goblins to ghostly roaming primates, here are the spooky origins of 10 familiar words.

1. AGHAST

Although it’s used much more loosely in English today, the word aghast literally means “frightened by a ghost.” That’s because the “ghast” of aghast is a derivative of the Old English word gæsten, meaning “to terrify,” which is in turn a derivative of gæst, the Old English word for “ghost.” The “gast” of flabbergast, incidentally, probably comes from the same root.

2. BUGABOO

Bugaboo has been used since the early 1700s to refer to an imagined problem or bugbear (although oddly, in 19th century English, it was also used as a nickname for a bailiff). The word itself has two possible origins, both of which are equally ghoulish: It might come from an old Celtic word (most likely bucca-boo, an old Cornish word for a devil or spectre), or it might come from “Bugibu,” the name of a monstrous demon that appeared in a Medieval French poem, Aliscans, written in the mid-1100s.

3. COBALT

The chemical element cobalt takes its name from the “kobold,” a type of devious subterranean hobgoblin in German folklore. Described in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) as “a species of gnomes who haunted the dark and solitary places,” the kobolds were once believed to inhabit the rocks and tunnels of mineshafts, where they would reward those miners who respected them with rich discoveries, and would punish any others with rockfalls, poisonous fumes and underground fires. The kobold’s connection to cobalt stems from the fact that two of the element’s most important ores—namely cobaltite and smaltite—both contain an equivalent amount of arsenic, which makes mining for them a particularly hazardous business. Long before the harmful nature of these metals was known to science, however, any miners who fell ill collecting cobalt would be left with little option but to blame their misfortune on the treacherous kobolds.

4. LARVA

In Latin, larva originally meant “ghost” or “ghoul,” and when the word first began to be used in English in the mid-1600s, it meant precisely that. But because the ghosts and ghouls of antiquity were often portrayed as wearing a disguise to hide amongst the world of the living, in Latin larva also came to mean “mask,” and it was this figurative sense that the 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus meant when he began to call the juvenile forms of insects larvae in the 1740s.

5. LEMUR

Carl Linnaeus was also responsible for the word lemur, which he stole from the ghoulish Lemures of Ancient Rome. To the Romans, the Lemures were the skeletal, zombie-like ghosts of murder victims, executed criminals, sailors lost at sea, and anyone else who had died leaving unfinished business behind them on Earth. According to Roman tradition, ultimately the Lemures would return to haunt the world of the living each night—and hence when Linnaeus discovered a group of remarkably human-like primates wandering silently around the tropical rainforests in the dead of night, he had the perfect name for them.

6. MASCOT

We might use it more generally to mean an emblem or symbol, but a mascot was originally a talisman or charm, namely something intended to be used to protect someone from harm. In this sense the word is derived from masca, an old Provençal French word for a witch or sorceress.

7. MINDBOGGLING

The “boggle” of mindboggling is derived from an old Middle English word, bugge, for an invisible ghost or monster. These bugges (or “bogles” as they became known) could not be seen by human eyes, but could supposedly be seen by animals: a spooked horse that reared up for no apparent reason would once have been said to have seen a bogle.

8. NICKEL

Like cobalt, nickel takes its name from another ghoul from German folklore, known as the Kupfernickel, or “copper-demon.” Unlike the kobolds, however, nickels were more mischievous than dangerous and would simply trick unsuspecting miners into thinking they had discovered copper, when in fact they had discovered nickel, which was comparatively less valuable. Like the kobolds, however, the nickels had to be placated and respected, else they could cause cave-ins or other underground disasters.

9. TERABYTE

The “tera” of words like terabyte, terawatt, and terahertz is derived from the Greek word for “monster,” teras. The words teratism, meaning “a monstrosity,” and teratology, “the study of biological abnormalities,” are derived from the same root.

10. ZEITGEIST

If a poltergeist is literally a “noisy ghost” in German, then a zeitgeist is simply a “spirit of the age”—that is to say, something that seems to sum up the era in which it exists.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

The Right Way to Pronounce 'Dachshund'

iStock.com/James Player
iStock.com/James Player

You may know them as wiener dogs or Doxies, but do you know how to say their proper name? Like many German words, the pronunciation of dachshund is often bungled by English speakers. Dash-ind and dash-hound are among the more common pronunciations, but both of those are technically incorrect.

Here to help is Jen Dre, a YouTuber who makes videos about being a German expat in London. Dre explains that dachshund is actually made up of two smaller German words: Dachs means badger and hund means dog. “So together it means badger dog, because these dogs were bred to go down badger holes and rabbit holes as well,” Dre says. That’s right—your lovable little Doxie might not hurt a fly, but her ancestors were fearlessly hunting down badgers.

It’s easy to see how dachs might be pronounced as dash in English, but German pronunciation rules must be taken into account. In German, the letters chs are often pronounced like an x. With this in mind, you’d pronounce the word dahks-hund. But if you want to give it more of an English accent, dacks-ind is also fine, Dre says. You can hear how she says it in the video below.

Dachshunds aren’t the only dogs whose names get mispronounced all the time. Other oft-butchered breed names include newfoundlands, shih tzus, and vizslas, according to Business Insider.

25 Words You Didn't Know Were in the Dictionary

iStock
iStock

With perhaps three-quarters of a million words in the English language, it's fairly reasonable to suggest that you probably won't get around to learning them all, and that there'll be plenty of words hiding away in the dictionary that you’ll never need (or want) to know.

In some cases, that's a real shame: Look closely enough and the dictionary contains dozens of eminently useful words, like euneirophrenia (the pleasant feeling of contentment that comes from waking up after a nice dream), zwodder (a cloudy, befuddled mental state caused by not getting enough sleep), and snollygoster (a disreputable politician). But in other cases—as with the 25 weird and obscure words listed here—not knowing or using them might be totally understandable.

1. ARCHIMIME

Two male friends laughing and imitating each other
iStock

As well as being one of the strangest words in the dictionary, archimime or archmime is also perhaps one of the strangest occupations in history: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archimime was "a chief buffoon or jester" whose job involved attending funerals and impersonating the deceased person. (No, really.)

2. AWESOMESAUCE

A glass bottle of cranberry sauce being transferred from bottle to bowl
iStock

Yes, this slang word for anything particularly awesome was added to the dictionary (or at least the online arm of Oxford Dictionaries) in 2015, along with the likes of fur baby, wine o’clock, manspreading, and mkay.

3. BATRACHOMYOMACHY

A frustrated-looking businesswoman at a meeting, leaning back in chair with her hand on her head
iStock

If you know your classics, you might know this one already: A batrachomyomachy is a petty quarrel or pointless argument. That might sound straightforward enough, but when you find out that it literally means "a battle between frogs and mice," things take a turn for the unusual. The word batrachomyomachy actually derives from an ancient Greek parody of Homer's Iliad in which a frog accidentally drowned a mouse that was sitting on its back, sparking a brutal war between the two species.

4. BUTTOCKER

A smiling man wearing a head lamp working at a mine
iStock

A buttock (in this context at least) is the next portion of a coalface to be broken up and mined out. A buttocker, according to an early 20th century Glossary of the Mining Industry, is someone who does precisely that.

5. CALLIPYGIAN

A young woman doing yoga with one leg raised in the air
iStock

Derived from the Greek word callos, meaning "beauty" (as in calligraphy or calisthenics), someone described as callipygian has beautifully shaped buttocks. Originally an architectural term from the early 1800s used to describe the figures of classical sculptures and artworks, the word has been in wider use since the late 1900s.

6. CEPHALOMANCY

Close up of a donkey on a grassy mountain
iStock

Sages and forecasters have used ever more bizarre methods to tell the future over the centuries, from observing the shapes of the clouds (aeromancy) to the shapes and patterns of the ashes from a fire (tephromancy). Among the strangest of all these fortune-telling practices was cephalomancy—a method of foretelling the future in which a donkey's head would be boiled or roasted on an open fire, and significance taken from the movements or crackling of its bones. One particular use of this kind of divination was in assessing a guilty party: A list of names would be read aloud while the head was cooked, and if the donkey's jaw moved or cracked when someone's name was spoken, they were said to be the guilty party.

7. EUOUAE

Antique sheet music set up on a church lectern
iStock

Euouae is actually a mnemonic abbreviation used to memorize the sequence of a particular cadence in a certain hymn (and so the jury is out as to whether it actually constitutes a word). Nevertheless, it's found its way onto the pages of some dictionaries and as such is said to be the longest word in the English language consisting entirely of vowels.

8. FEAGUE

A white horse in a barn
iStock

According to the English lexicographer Francis Grose's aptly-titled Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, feague is a verb meaning "to put ginger up a horse's fundament." If that sounds too ridiculous to be true, don't worry: You can always replace the raw ginger with a live eel. Both methods, Grose explained, were apparently once used "to make him lively and carry his tail well," thereby earning his owner a better price at market. Etymologically, the word is something of a mystery­, but one theory suggests that feague might once have meant merely "to agitate" or "to enliven," and the later more specific (and more unpleasant) meaning derived from there.

9. GANDER-PULLING

A group of white geese on a blue background
iStock

Take a live goose. Cover it in grease. Suspend it by its feet from a crossbar. Then ride a horse underneath it and, as you go by, try to pull the goose’s head off. That’s the definition of the sport (if it can be called a sport) of gander-pulling.

10. HIPPANTHROPY

A farmer smiling at his cow across a metal bar
iStock

Coined in the 1800s, hippanthropy is the mental delusion that you are turning into, or have turned into, a horse. Not quite the word you want? Try boanthropy, the delusion that you're an ox. Too specific? Try zoanthropy, the delusion that you are turning into an (unspecified) animal.

11. HOPLOCHRISM

A steel sword point over a background of burned paper
iStock

Derived from a Greek word, hoplon, for a weapon, hoplochrism is an old form of medicine in which the weapon or tool that caused a wound would be treated and anointed in the same way as the wound itself, in the belief that doing so would somehow speed up the healing process. You can decide for yourself whether it ever worked.

12. LANT

Two cold beers in glasses on a wooden bar
iStock

As a noun, lant or leint is stale or aged urine, which was once stored and preserved for its chemical and supposed medicinal properties. As a verb, to lant is to mix urine into beer to make it taste stronger. If ever there was a word you might never want to come across, surely it's this.

13. POGONOLOGY

A close-up of the lower half of a strawberry blond, bearded, freckled man's face
iStock

First used in English in the 18th century, a pogonology is a treatise on or written description of a beard.

14. PTOMATIS

Red wine pouring out of a bottle and into a glass
iStock

If ever you needed an incentive to drink, owning a ptomatis might be it. Derived via Latin from Ancient Greek, a ptomatis is a cup or similar drinking vessel that needs to be emptied before it can be put down, as it is shaped in such a way that it won't stand upright open-end up.

15. QUOMODOCUNQUIZE

uccessful businesswoman multitasking with six arms at once, holding various implements
iStock

Q-words are always a bit on the unusual side, but quomodocunquize is in a field of its own. Derived from a Latin word, quomodocunque, meaning "in whatever way possible," to quomodocunquize is to make money or earn a living by any possible means.

16. RUNNING-BUTTOCK

Two wrestlers in stance on stage
iStock

Thankfully not as unpleasant as it sounds: A running-buttock is the name of a wrestling move dating from the 17th century.

17. SHIVVINESS

A pile of wooden splinters and sawdust
iStock

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something. Derived from that—in the sense that a loose thread or tag in a garment might be unpleasantly scratchy—shivviness is the uncomfortable feeling caused by wearing new underwear.

18. SMELLFUNGUS

A skeptical-looking man with a finger on his lower lip
iStock

In his A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), the author Laurence Sterne invented a character named Smelfungus (albeit with one L) who was habitually unimpressed with everything he cast his eyes on during his travels. Sterne based the character on fellow travel writer (and chronic nitpicker) Tobias Smollett, and in doing so gave the English language a brilliant word for a dour, pessimistic faultfinder.

19. SOOTERKIN

A blond woman sitting on a kitchen counter near the stove
iStock

As definitions go, that of sooterkin is probably among the strangest of all in the dictionary: It refers to a monstrous part-human creature said to be given birth to by Dutch women who sat on stove tops to keep warm.

20. SPANGHEW

A toy frog jumping through the air
iStock

According to a quotation in the English Dialect Dictionary, spanghewing was the name of "a cruel custom" that involved "blowing up a frog by inserting a straw under the skin at the anus." The inflated frog was then bowled across the surface of a pond, and whoever could toss or spanghew their frog the furthest won the game. Thankfully, nobody goes around spanghewing anymore and so the word—on the rare occasion it is used—is typically used to mean "to hurl violently into the air."

21. SYPHILOMANIA

A blood vial that has tested positive for syphilis
iStock

Should you ever need a word for it, the tendency of doctors "to overdiagnose syphilis, or to treat patients for syphilis unnecessarily," is syphilomania according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

22. TATTARRATTAT

The back of a long-haired young woman knocking on a door with a blue knocker
iStock

James Joyce invented this word for the sound of someone knocking on a door in his novel Ulysses (1922). As well as being just a particularly strange word, it also has the distinction of being the longest palindrome in the OED.

23. THUMB-BUMPER

A happy smiling man in a blue shirt giving a thumbs up
iStock

In addition to being a term from pinball, a thumb-bumper is 'one who closing his fist firmly but with the thumb sticking out fiercely drives it against the buttocks of another." Why you would have to do that, and why it happened frequently enough to warrant a definition in the English Dialect Dictionary, is a mystery. And probably best kept that way.

24. TYROTOXISM

Various types of cheese on a cutting board and a wooden table
iStock

Should you ever need a word specifically to describe being poisoned by cheese, here it is.

25. WHIPPERSNAP

A little girl with blond hair and large black funny glasses
iStock

To behave like a whippersnapper? That's to whippersnap.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER