Halloween creatures and the origin of their names

Many different Halloween creatures stalk the streets for trick-or-treating- during Halloween. And so, for the horror-loving (word) nerds among us, these strange and far-flung origins of these monster names might be exactly what you want to know!

  1. Witches

This word originates from Old English. The earliest one refers to a male practitioner of sorcery and magic, wicca. It’s also the source of the neopagan religion of the same name. Wicca is derived from wiccan, which means ‘to practice witchcraft.’ Some speculate that the deeper roots are connected to Germanic words meaning holy or awaken.

2. Werewolves

It’s another one originating from Old English. This word appears to date back to 1000, but was never in much use, except for some Scottish speakers amongst each other. Until, modern folklore revived it. Werewolves are men turning into wolves, which is exactly what the word means. ‘Were’ comes from an Old English word for man and is related to the same Latin ‘vir’ (man), giving us words like virile and virtue. Oh, and it’s not only wolves that use ‘were.’ There are also stories of werebears, werefoxes, weretigers and even werehyenas.

3. Frankenstein

I know, it isn’t the name of the monster. It’s the name of his creator, Victor. However, in the novel, the writer was inspired by her travelling through Germany, which took her near Frankenstein Castle. Frankenstein is a German surname and place-name with a rough meaning ‘stone of the Franks.’ The Franks (or freemen) were a Germanic tribe.

4. Vampires

This word isn’t any older than the early 1700s, borrowed from the French vampire, itself taken from a Slavonic source near Hungary. One Eastern European linguist argued that vampire comes from a northern Turkish word ‘uber’, which means witch. The name of the most famous vampire Dracula, is related to another mythical creature: the dragon.

Full Moon in the Sky

5. Mummies

Back in the 1400s, mummy referred to a bituminous substance (asphalt for example). This specific material was used as a medicine prepared from mummified human flesh. Both French (mommie) and Latin (mumia) also named a substance used to embalm corpses. Latin borrowed its mumia from the Arabic mumiya, ‘bitumen.’ The Arabic is said to preserve a Persian root meaning wax. It wasn’t until the 1600s that mummy, used for Egyptian mummification, was used for those de-organed, embalmed corpses.

6. Ghouls

This word also comes from the Middle East. In Arabic mythology, a ghoul (or ghul) robbed graves and ate corpses. The root is a verb that means ‘to seize.’ The word was used in English thanks to a 1780s translation of an Arabic tale.

7. Goblins

This name of this mischievous, ugly folk creature might originate from the Greek kobalos, a kind of scoundrel. Kobalos passed into Latin and ten French, where Gobelinus is documented as the name for a spirit haunting the city of Evreux in the Middle Ages. The word enters English by the 1320s. A hobgoblin (related impish creature) features hob, which comes from a shortened nickname for Robert.

8. Demons

Demon is another word originating from Ancient Greek. A daimon variously signified a god, divinity, attendant spirit or even the force of fate itself. The base of this daimon is a Greek verb meaning ‘to divide.’ Demon went to the dark side when Greek authors used it to translate Hebrew terms for the bad guys in the Old Testament.

Person's Hand Touching Wall

9. Devil

The Hebrew satan means an adversary, literally an obstructor or plotter-against. The Greek diabolos, a slanderer or accuser, picks up on this idea as it literally means ‘one who throws something across the path of another.’ The words symbol and ballistics share roots with it.

10. Zombies

Zombies are corpses ‘brought’ back to life. Zombie was brought into English from West Africa. The Kikongo language spoken around Congo has nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish). With zombie, originally the name of a snake deity in voodoo religion. Via the slave trade, the word made its way to Haiti, where folklore told that corpses magically came back from the dead. It came to the English language in the 1810s. Some speculated that zombie might be a Louisiana Creole word from the Spanish sombra, a shade or ghost.

11. Ghosts

The Old English gast meant spirit, including good ones, bad ones and holy ones. The h creeped in thanks to Dutch and Flemish cognates. Forms of ghost are indeed found throughout the Germanic languages, coming from an Indo-European root referring to fear or amazement. In the 14th century, it gets its meaning as we know today: an apparition of a dead person.

12. Bigfoot/Sasquatch

Americans named this large, hairy hominid Bigfoot, Canadians call it Sasquatch. Sasquatch comes from the Halkomelem language, spoken by First Nations people in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a region whose mountain the saesq’ec or ‘hairy mountain man’, is believed to roam. It has been in the English language since 1929.


13. Yeti

The snowy counterpart of the previous one is the Yeti, said to roam the Himalayan mountains. Yeti comes from the Tibetan yeh-teh, a little man-like animal. Yeh-teh is also rendered as ‘rocky bear’. A journalist translated the Tibetan metoh kangmi in 1921, another name for the Yeti, as ‘abominable snowman.’ It means ‘filthy snowman’, instead.

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