It’s the time of year when doorsteps are decorated with jack-o’-lanterns and spiderwebs, and shopping carts fill with candy in preparation for trick-or-treaters. While American children and adults embrace the modern Halloween spirit, the roots of ghostly words come from cultures around the world. Get into the Halloween spirit with these spooktacular words.
What Goes Bump in the Night?
Ghosts go by many names. With fantasma, the Spanish word for ghost, and fantom, the Haitian-Creole word, the roots imply that these spirits appear translucent, like a mist. The reason for this, according to anthropologists, may be because of the mist that appears in cold climates when breath is exhaled.
Scientists haven’t been able to prove the existence of ghosts, but they’re easy to find in fictional stories. They can be seen as kind, welcoming beings or as malevolent ones. In Scotland, a wraith may appear, but the etymology of the word suggests the “guardian angel” may bring a peaceful message. In Germany, a poltergeist will make a noisy entrance by moving objects around a room; in Northern England, the boisterous creatures are called “boggarts.”
The word “zombie” has a few possible origins: Jumbie is the West Indian word for “ghost” and nzambi is Kongo for “spirit of a dead person.” The Haitian Creole dialect also has zonbi, which has roots in Haitian voodoo folklore. Unlike in modern zombie stories, which often employ technology or a virus to create the undead, a bokor (or a sorcerer) can create a zombie by controlling an individual’s spirit. While the word may come from distinct cultures, it was the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead that popularized the modern idea of an undead creature who moves robotically and seeks human flesh.
For other creatures of the night, multiple languages use similar words to identify them. Both Hungarian and German use vampir to describe bloodsucking monsters. And while many languages use versions of “werewolf” (or werwolf), Spanish-speaking countries know these creatures as hombre-lobos. Portuguese speakers call them lobisomem.
Cryptids, or creatures that science hasn’t been able to prove exist, go by many different names around the world. Perhaps the most famous example is the Scottish "Nessie," or the Loch Ness Monster. Said to resemble a dinosaur with a long neck, it also supposedly has flippers and can breathe underwater. References and supposed Nessie sightings date back to the seventh century. But Scotland isn’t the only country to have a lake monster legend. Argentina has Nahuelito, supposedly living in the Patagonian Mountains, with the same features as Nessie, down to the long neck.
Legends talk of cryptids on dry land. Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch in Canada or the Yeti in the Himalayan Mountains) is described as at least eight feet tall and covered in hair, possibly half man, half ape.
Then there are regionally specific cryptids, like the Jersey Devil, which comes from colonial New Jersey lore. Described as having horse hooves and the wings of a bat, the Jersey Devil first popped up in stories when Deborah Leeds gave birth to her 13th child in the early 1700s and claimed that the baby was a child of the devil. Since then, many New Jersey locals swear they've spotted the creature across the state.
Whether scientists back up the folklore or not, Halloween will likely bring many ghosts, zombies, werewolves, and Bigfoots to your doorstep — if only for trick-or-treating.
Featured image credit: AntonioSolano/ iStock