The spooky history of these Halloween words

2 min read

Get ready for your upcoming Halloween bash. Between the “Monster Mash” and the costume contests lies the art of good, creepy cocktail conversation. Scroll through this list of chilling words and their histories to get fluent in the language of Halloween … if you dare.


When we think of the verb haunt, we typically envision a crumbling mansion with ghosts and evil spirits wandering cobwebbed hallways. However, for centuries haunt was more neutral, meaning to visit a place often. Then, in the 1500s, the scary connotation crept in, and haunt began to reference distress and harm. A nice walk through a haunted house on Halloween is just what the mad scientist ordered.


The word ghost has been in use for at least a thousand years, though it originally meant someone’s vital spark or intelligence. Eventually the meaning morphed into the disembodied souls of the dead. An ancient spelling is gast, the root of ghastly, or something frightening. Halloween is all about celebrating the separation, and ongoing existence, of the spirit from the body after death, so this one does make sense.


The myth of the bloodthirsty undead preying on the living is older than the word itself, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. The original naming of the creepy creature came from Eastern Europe, where Serbian stories about the vampir were popular. In the 1700s, vampire made its way into English and has been sucking our blood ever since.


Originally a Gaelic term for woman of the fairyland, this fanciful term abruptly took a dark turn. In legends, banshees are the spirits of women who scream under the windows of houses. If you heard her wail, you would know someone in your home would die before daybreak. Yikes.


Goblins have come to mean something more mischievous than monstrous over the centuries. The word goblin has its root in a Greek word meaning rogue, which points to its playful nature. However a goblin, when used in myths and literature, can exist anywhere on the scale from plain ugly to menacingly evil.


Historically, a wraith was the replica of a living person appearing as a specter (see further down the list) to foreshadow something bad, like that person’s death. The synonym for the ghostly appearance of a living person is doppelgänger. Today, doppelgänger is more commonly used to mean seeing someone who looks exactly like another individual.


Although it looks similar to the Old English words ghost and ghastly, it wasn’t until the 1700s that ghoul became part of the language. The word was introduced to the West by the translation of Arabian Nights into French. In the book, the Arabian word ghul was used to describe an evil being who robbed graves and ate corpses. It was derived from the Arabian verb meaning “to seize.”


Meaning a visible disembodied spirit, the word specter is rooted in the Latin spectrum. The verb form is specere, which means “to look.” Many English words pertaining to appearance have derived from the same verb: spectacle, inspect and conspicuous, to name a few. Specters can also be ghostly, fearsome visions conjured by the imagination. Or, are those just Halloween decorations?

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