16 Scary Sayings for 'Ghost' From Across the United States

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On Halloween, the spirits of the dead are supposed to walk the earth with the living. Whether or not you believe that, or in ghosts in general, you might want to know what you’re getting into if you hear a South Carolina native mention a plat-eye or a Maine resident warn you about swogons. Familiarize yourself with these U.S. regional slang terms for familiar spirits from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. SKOOKUM

Referring to a ghost, demon, or spirit, skookum is chiefly a Northwest term and comes from a language of the Chinook Native American peoples of the Pacific Northwest. In the Northwest and Alaska, skookum as an adjective means strong, powerful, or good, while a skookum house is a jail and a skookum chuck is a turbulent channel of water.

2. TOMMYKNOCKER

More than just a Stephen King novel, tommyknocker has been used in the West since at least the early 20th century to mean a ghost that lives in a mine. It also refers to the knocking noises that said ghost is supposed to make. This ghost sense comes from the English dialect word tommyknocker meaning a “hammer used to break ore."

3. HAUNT

In the South and South Midland states, a haunt or hant is a ghost or spirit. The earliest definitions of haunt weren’t ghostly at all: According to the OED, the word originated in the 13th century to mean to practice habitually or to frequent a place. Around 1576, it gained the figurative meaning of memories, cares, feelings, thoughts, etc. that distract one frequently. In 1597, the term wandered into the supernatural. From Richard III: “Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed." Almost 300 years later, it finally came to refer to a spirit or ghost.

4. HOT HANT

You might run into a hot hant or hot steam in the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Alabama. In Ben Burman’s 1938 book, Blow for a Landing, hot hants are hot because "they’ve gone to hell.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, a hot steam is described as "somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too.”

5. BUGABOO

This ghostly South and South Midland expression might also refer to an imaginary monster or the devil. In use since at least 1710, the OED says the word might come from the now obscure meaning of bug, an imaginary evil spirit (the insect meaning came later), and might also be influenced by boo. Also boogerboo and bugabo.

6. BOOGER

Careful if someone from the South or South Midland states says you have a booger—they could mean something more frightening than a piece of snot. The word originated in the 1750s to mean a despicable man, according to the OED, and came to mean a menacing supernatural creature in the 1820s (and dried nasal mucus in 1891).

7. DUPPY

In Alabama and Louisiana, you might say duppy for ghost. According to DARE, the word comes from Bube, a Bantu language of West Africa. OED’s earliest citation in English is from British historian Edward Long’s 1774 book The History of Jamaica (“Those of deceased friends are duppies”), while DARE’s is from a 1919 issue of the Journal of American Folklore: “ … the ghost-story, the tale based on a belief about ‘hants’ or ‘bugies’ or ‘duppies.’”

8. HIDE-BEHIND

Also high-behind and nigh-behind, this term refers to a ghost or imaginary creature that always hides behind some object. Henry Tryon’s 1939 book Fearsome Critters describes the hide-behind as a 6-foot-tall “highly dangerous animal” with “grizzly-like claws.” Conveniently enough, it’s “never known to attack an inebriate.” According to Vance Randolph’s 1951 We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks, the monster is “a lizard as big as a bull” that “lies in wait for human beings on the trails at night.”

9. CATAWAMPUS

An imaginary monster or hobgoblin in the South and South Midland states, the word also means fierce, unsparing, and destructive, according to the OED, and originated as a humorous formation, the first part of which might have been influenced by catamount, a puma or cougar.

10. SWOGON

This Maine term for a spirit might come from Swamp Swogon as quoted in Holman Day’s Up in Maine: “For even in these days P.I.’s shake / At the great Swamp Swogon of Brassua Lake./ When it blitters and glabbers the long night through,/ And shrieks for the souls of the shivering crew.” Another Maine word, swogun (also spelled swagin, swagan, and other variations) refers to bean soup.

11. AKUA

In Hawaii, an akua is a god, spirit, or supernatural being. The OED has atua, which it says is a Polynesian word with the same meaning.

12. STEPNEY

This expression is used among Gullah speakers on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. It could mean hunger or hard times, and may also be personified as a malevolent spirit. However, where the word comes from isn’t clear.

13. PLAT-EYE

Careful of plat-eyes if you’re roaming around in South Carolina at night. These hobgoblins or malevolent spirits are said to rise out of graves. Platt-eye prowl refers to the time of night they’re said to roam.

14. GO-DEVIL

Another South Carolina expression, a go-devil is an evil spirit or someone made up to look like one. The term also refers to various machines and devices in agriculture, forestry, the oil industry, and logging.

15. HAG OR HAG SPIRIT

While commonly known as a witch, in the Southeast a hag or hag spirit might also refer to the evil spirit of a dead person. Said spirit is supposed to cause nightmares by “riding” the luckless dreamer. Hag-ridden, according to the OED, means afflicted by nightmares or oppressed in the mind.

16. RAWHEAD AND BLOODYBONES

In addition to being an excellent name for a death metal band, rawhead and bloodybones is a South and South Midland expression for a specter or hobgoblin. It’s an old term: DARE’s earliest citation in American English is from 1637, while in British English it's 1566, according to the OED. The rawhead part is terrifyingly and "typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin,” while bloodybones is sometimes described as a bogeyman who lurks in ponds “waiting to drown children.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

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The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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