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What's the Word Halloween Edition: Boogeyman

Hanna Shelton

Halloween is upon us, and we might with good reason be curious about the biography of such words as “boogeyman” and “ghost” that are connected with the holiday. The former, that terrifying monster who jumps out at night from under your bed, may derive from the French general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, that Napoleon! The one who declared himself emperor in 1804, and nearly succeeded in conquering half of Europe. So where’s the connection?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “boogeyman” is not traceable to any period before 1840, or thereabouts, at which point we find words like “bogy” or “bogey” used to describe evil spirits, or demons. (There are probably links here with medieval beliefs in fairies, by the way.) The term must have been current at some point prior to that year, however. Well, during the Napoleonic wars English people were in a near constant state of fear that Napoleon’s armies would cross the English Channel and invade their shores, which in fact nearly occurred. So acute was the terror that the very name, “Bonaparte,” became a kind of shorthand for an almost supernaturally powerful monster who could invade your house at any moment. Meanwhile, the English also have a wonderful habit of satirizing and belittling their enemies, like with the unfounded rumor that Napoleon was a very short man. So, to make him even less frightening, folks seem to have begun referring to him as “Boney” or the “Boneyman,” which makes him sound a bit silly. The nineteenth-century Irish poet and satirist Thomas More, for example, frequently referred to Bonaparte as “Boney.” Consider the following lines from More’s satire “The Fudge Family in Paris”:

That France prefers her go-cart King

To such a coward scamp as BONEY;

Tho’ round, with each a leading-string,

There standeth many a Royal crony” (p. 14).

So “boney” becomes “boneyman,” and a shift in the medial consonant from “n” to “g” we arrive at “bogeyman” and, later, “boogeyman” – that same ghost who’s always threatening to come and get you if you aren’t careful!

And what indeed about the word “ghost”? We have a great many interesting locutions pertaining to the word – from “ghostwriter” to the verb “ghosting” – but where does the root of this word actually come from. Well, our word “ghost” is related to the modern German “Geist” – both deriving from the proto-Germanic language family, and so the original meaning of “ghost” (“gaest” as it was pronounced in Old English) is definitely non-Christian – or “pagan,” if you like – since the word was in use well before the Christianization of western Europe. So it’s useful to bear this in mind, since we often use words like “spirit” and “ghost” interchangeably, as in “holy ghost” or “holy spirit.” In this sense, the word shows interesting links between ancient European cultures and religions, but “ghost” is also pretty flexible since we use it in a wide range of idioms. For example, when a person dies, we say that they “give up the ghost.”

By the way, there’s actually a common misconception surrounding the expression “give up the ghost.” It has been argued, quite falsely, that it first appeared in 1611 with the printing of the King James Bible, even though William Shakespeare had used the phrase earlier in his play Julius Caesar (1599). But even during the 1390s, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the expression “give up the ghost,” and there are well over a dozen other instances of the phrase in the English writings of his day. On the other hand, while the saying is an ancient one indeed, we still find it pretty handy!

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