10 Words With Spooky Etymologies

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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 Ohio State University Is Trying to Trademark the ‘The’ in Its Name

As any good Ohioan knows, there’s a big difference between an Ohio state university and The Ohio State University. But with countless other public colleges across the state, including the similarly named Ohio University, it’s not hard for out-of-towners or prospective students to get confused. To further distinguish themselves from other institutions (and to capitalize on merchandise opportunities, no doubt), The Ohio State University is pursuing a trademark for the The in its name.

According to Smithsonian.com, trademark lawyer Josh Gerben first broke the news on Twitter, where he shared a short video that included the trademark application itself, as well as examples of how the university plans to use the word on apparel. One is a white hat emblazoned with a red THE, and the other is a red scoop-necked T-shirt with a white THE and the Ohio State logo beneath it. Gerben predicts that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will initially deny the trademark request on the basis that those examples aren’t sufficient trademark use, but the university would have an opportunity to try again.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that university spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the trademark application, saying that “Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” He’s not exaggerating; the university has secured trademarks for legendary coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes, plus more than 150 trademarks and pending applications across an impressive 17 countries.

The school's 2017 request to trademark the initials "OSU" provoked an objection from Oklahoma State University, which is also known as OSU, but the two schools eventually decided that they could both use it, as long as each refrained from producing clothing or content that could cause confusion about which school was being referenced.

The Ohio State University, perhaps most famous for its marching band, public research endeavors, and legendary athletic teams, is not impervious to social media mockery, however.

Ohio University responded with this:

And the University of Michigan, OSU’s longtime sports rival, suggested that it should trademark of:

However bizarre this trademark may seem, it's far from the weirdest request th Patent and Trademark Office has ever received. Check out these colors and scents that are also trademarked.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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