Boos by any other spook as sweet
| October 6, 2021 1:00 AM
There’s something going around that’s even more frightening than the usual spooks of the season. It goes “boo,” but not like that.
I’ve fallen prey to another piece of junk “history” on Facebook (that’s why you always fact-checked self-published work, especially if it’s on someone’s feed). This alleged factoid was too appealing to ignore, however, so I had to check it.
There’s a charming — and almost certainly incorrect — idea circulating online that the origin of every English-speaking ghost’s favorite word is boo! (boare), the Latin word for “I alarm!” or “I frighten!”
Well the only Hallow-appropriate aspect of that statement is how frighteningly wrong it is and how quickly false information can catch on when it isn’t vetted first with background knowledge, a little skepticism and research confirmation.
Let’s make like Van Helsing and destroy the fact-suckers (err bloodsuckers), shall we?
The story unravels immediately, which is unfortunate, because I was prepared to become the Miss Marple of etymological fallacies.
Not only does Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (2002) define boo, boare as “to shout, roar, echo,” but even the briefest of Google searches will turn up similar translations. Latin-dictionary.net suggests more colorful synonyms like “bellow” or “cry aloud,” but that’s a long way off from “frighten” or “alarm.” (Better words for that would be territare or terrere.)
Some like to offer the Greek word boao, which translates similarly, as some sort of proof, but it’s really of no consequence. Greek words tend to come into English through Latin, rather than straight from Greek. It’s not surprising the same word existed in both, but that’s no reason to think English ghosts say “boo” as a direct way to say “I cry out.” (And who cries out the phrase, “I cry out”?)
If you didn’t think to check the Latin and simply searched “why do ghosts say boo” you would find what appears to be a bunch of poorly researched nonsense. Fortunately, most blogs — and yes, most of the websites awaiting to answer your questions are blogs, written by people who may or may not have any more background on the subject than you do — don’t seem too eager to over-credit the boo, boare explanation, although several mention it.
Instead, another explanation is offered, one which seems a little more plausible because it is so simple and less cutesy than Latin-speaking ghosts. These blogs point to the old Scottish word bo or bu, likely an old form of boo, which supposedly was used to announce one’s presence. To ‘say one’s bo’ meant to announce yourself, presumably with some oomph behind it — as if you’re announcing your very being as well.
Better researched blogs point out more recent (1800-1940) forms and uses of bo, bu and boo in Scottish English, including bo, an old fellow, and bu-kow or bo-man/boo-man/bu-man, all of which seem to have referred to a frightening entity (such as a scarecrow or hobgoblin). Bogey (a possible precursor to boogeyman) is also associated with things that were frightening to children.
This is a bit trickier to check without a good Scottish dictionary, but online etymological dictionaries list ‘bu’ as a form of ‘is’ or ‘am’ (all right, that’s a fairly close association of presence) and confirm uses of bu-kow, bo-man and bogey in frightening contexts. Although it’s interesting to note that other magical creatures like brownies (gentler magic spirits) have also been associated with the term bo-man. Boakie, another word for brownie, sprite, or even hobgoblin, also sounds a lot like bogie (or boogey).
There is also the suggestion by some dictionaries that boo/bo began as onomatopoeia, a way of not only announcing oneself but perhaps the noise someone (or something fae) makes — perhaps when shouting?
It’s a funny coincidence, but it ain’t Latin. Because as any Scot can tell you, the Scottish may speak English now, but their older languages (most notably Scots and Scottish Gaelic) had nothing to do with English — or Latin.
The only ghosts speaking in lingua Latina are more likely visiting their descendants in dreams than narrating their own cries in the first person, I’m afraid.
And although we can’t determine precisely how ghosts started saying “boo,” we can probably assume the specters are saying it in Scottish accents.