Thursday, October 31, 2013

Language of Confusion: Ghostly

Happy Halloween! And isn’t it lucky that it falls on Etymology Thursday. It’s like two holidays in one!

Last year I did a post on a bunch of words for scary, so this year I’m doing a post on a bunch of things that are scary.

Comes from the Old English gast, which is also the origin word for ghastly and aghast. Back in the fourteenth century, gast was a word in English, an adjective that came from the verb gasten, or to frighten. If you remember my post last year on all the words for scary, you’ll know that we have a lot of words with the same definition, so I guess this one just got left behind. Anyway, back to ghost. Before the Old English gast or gaestan, there was the Proto Germanic ghoizdoz and Proto Indo European gheis, to be excited or frightened. I guess a disembodied spirit was scary, so they got to calling it ghostl

Comes from the Old English wicce, sorceress (and its male equivalent, wicca) and the verb wiccian, to practice witchcraft. It’s not sure where that word came from, but there is a Proto Germanic word, wikkjaz, meaning necromancer, and further back the Proto Indo European weg-yo, meaning to be strong/lively.

Showed up in the early fourteenth century to mean a human or animal born with a birth defect. It comes from the Old French monstre/mostre, monster, and the classical Latin monstrum, an omen or abnormal shape, because apparently abnormal animals were considered ill omens because of course they were.

A recent word, showing up in 1854 (even without the y the word goes no further back than 1801). It’s believed the word came to English from Dutch influence, as modern Dutch has the same word and earlier, Middle Dutch has spooc, ghost. There are several similar words in other Germanic languages, but it’s unknown exactly where it came from.

Now, this word is special because unlike most English words, it didn’t come from Europe. It showed up in 1871 and it’s definitely West African in origin. When it first showed up, it was the word for a snake god. The whole undead thing was from the influence of either Voodoo or Creole.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Albert Valdman’s page at the Indiana University website


  1. Doesn't surprise me that zombie came from Voodoo.

  2. I like those root origins for ghost.

    There's an exhibit around here at one of the museums these days on voodoo....

  3. How does one pronounce wikkjaz? (This word would have made my brother and me crack up when we were kids. We spent a half a trip to Las Vegas giggling over Zzyzx Road when we saw the sign.)

    I saw a Mental Floss post about why ghost, ghastly, and ghoul are spelled with "gh" and I thought of you. Did you see it?

  4. Interesting and creepy post. :)

    Etymology is eating my lunch this week. Had to cut two words from my WIP (framed and loser) because the version I was using was coined after the setting year of my novel. Grrr.

  5. I happen to know that zombies didn't use to bite you to infect you with the zombie virus and eat your brains. Originally, zombies were undead brought back by a Voodoo witch practitioner to do his (or her) bidding. I used this version in a historical paranormal book (sadly, not one that has been purchased and published) but I had to avoid using the term zombie so as not to confuse the reader.


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