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Spooky Halloween: the origin of “spook”

I am not sure whether this year hordes of masked children will be roaming my neighborhood on 31 October, but in anticipation of this great event, I listened to the suggestion of my editor to write something connected with the great day and am doing so two weeks ahead of time.

SPOOK “ghost”

The word spook surfaced in the nineteenth century in American English and is believed to be of Dutch origin. Its alleged source is Dutch spook, pronounced with the vowel of English awe. German has Spuk, also taken from a northern (Low German) dialect. Similar words in the Scandinavian languages must have had the same source. If the accepted derivation of spook is correct, the English word must be of bookish, rather than colloquial, origin, because spook, borrowed from oral speech, would have become spoke or something like it. Also, Dutch words in English are usually much older. There is a Swiss verb zerspäuken “to be haunted by ghosts.” The vowels do not match, but in such “emotional” words, sounds often vary in a haphazard manner. Modern dictionaries unanimously call the so-called ultimate origin of this group undiscovered.

The problem is that we know too much about this ghostly company rather than too little. All over the place, we can see similar words without initial s-, for example, Old English pūca “little boy,” which makes us think of Puck (see the post for 20 February 2008). Opinions differ about the connection between Puck and spook. Obviously, in such words we cannot hide behind the ever-helpful s-mobile, an enigmatic prefix that occurred in old words of Indo-European origin, even though some good language historians resorted to it in dealing with more modern words. For example, it has once been suggested that slang is lang-, with s- added as a prefix (most probably a hopeless etymology, regardless of s-mobile). As will become clear later, Puck and spook may be connected, even if vaguely.

Who’s afraid of the big bad spook?

How can a ghost (any ghost) get its name, and why is the etymology of bogymen, gremlins, goblins, and spooks usually unknown? Could some of them be taboo words? (Do not call a spook by its real name, then it won’t hear it, and you needn’t be afraid of its visit.) Hostile giants of Scandinavian myths had four names. At least two of them have not been explained. Rísi is especially irritating, because its cognate, the German word Riese, is still very much alive; yet no one can explain where it came from. Spook has been once dismissed as a substrate word, a loan from some ancient indigenous language. This dead-end etymology looks clever but is just a coy way of saying: “Origin unknown.”

What do spooks of all types do? Apparently, they frighten people, have a terrible appearance, make a lot of noise, and portend disaster when seen. A few names were probably invented by adults to frighten little children. The Greek source of giant was gigant-, as seen in English gigantic. Who was giga, a distant cousin of English boogey and Russian buka? Did they shout gigi, giga, boo, boog, and the like? “Go to sleep, you naughty child, or giga ~ buka will come and fetch you.” Does a fetch come and fetch its victims? Another puzzling thing is that quite a few such words are known in many unrelated languages, Germanic and Finnish, for instance.

Let us look at some English words beginning with sp-. The verb spit is probably expressive, in some way imitating the sound one makes when “ejecting saliva.” Spew is common Germanic (fourth-century Gothic had it too). Latin spuere sounds like Old English spīwan, and so does Greek ptūein (allegedly, from spūtein). Even speak may be of similar origin! This verb seems to have had r in the root. Its German cognate sprechen resembles Old Icelandic spraka “to crackle.” English spark, if anyone is interested, is a word “of unknown origin.” Speak ~ sprechen seem to have arisen as expressions for a powerful statement. English spurn and Latin spernere “to scorn” may belong here too. All those words have been grouped as belonging together more than a hundred years ago.

Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo by Smatprt

What could be the ancient function of sp-? Did the language game begin with spittle and its alleged magic qualities? Spewing, spitting, spilling, spattering… Let us not forget spit(ting) ~ spit (and) image of one’s father (spittle was associated with sperm). Speed meant “good fortune, success” (compare may God speed you; good speed), and its cognates, like Latin spēs “hope,” are close. Spat “oyster” and spat “quarrel” are words “of unknown origin.” The same holds for spate (its original meaning is “flood”). Spook is, rather obviously, an invented word for a goblin. Sp– attaches itself easily to expressive words. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that spoof was coined “for fun.” With all the diffidence required in such situations, I would like to suggest that spook is a noun, whose form was meant to frighten, and the frightening part was sp-. Such conjectures are impossible to prove, and it is much easier to hide behind the formula “of unknown or substrate origin” (incidentally, in the substrate language, the sp-association may have been the same as in Indo-European). Given my approach, the origin will remain “unknown,” because a guess is a guess, but this guess at least provides a context: speak, spill, spit, spew, spark, spat, and the rest.

Now back to the mischievous Puck. In the environment of this word, we find pat ~ patter, peep (two meanings), peg (the latter again of obscure Low German or Dutch origin), pet, pit, pick, pat, and so forth. Some such words, for example, pip (a spot on a paying card) are expressive, like most words beginning with and ending in the same consonant, and some are sound-imitating (onomatopoeic). But so are also puff, pap, plump, pit-a-pat, and pop. The verb put emerged with the sense “push, thrust.” Push, pull, poke (the alleged source of puck in hockey), and pule are not far behind.

Pop goes the onomatopoeic weasel.

I have cited only such words as are well- or fairly well-known. As noted, demons, ghosts, and their kin are supposed to frighten people by puffing up and making a lot of noise. Puck is a tolerably good sound-imitating complex. For example, Russian puk– means “fart.” Both senses—“puff up” and “make a lot of noise”—often merge. I see no reason why Puck, as well as his Scandinavian and Celtic look-alikes, could not mean “a noisy creature ready to burst,” like Rumpelstilzchen (or Rumpelstiltskin), who concealed his name! Whether Puck emerged as a direct continuation of Old English pūca is a fact of no importance. Such formations arise, disappear, and are coined again in many parts of the world. Severe statements to the effect that spook and Puck have nothing to do with each other should probably be tempered, even if slightly.

It is curious to observe that the hotbed of many words mentioned above is Middle Dutch or Low German. Note that the spelling of the word ghost (with its unexpected gh-) seems also to be of Flemish origin. Thus, both spook and ghost came to English (at least partly) from the same region. A classic case of double Dutch.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    I had heard that the “h” got into English “goostly” (“spirituous”) because Caxton employed Flemish typesetters. MIght this be so?

  2. Olivier van Renswoude

    Good sir,

    A timely piece indeed! I must admit, I believe no sound-imitation was involved in this case, though as you say some haphazard variation is to be expected. I offer you a much condensed version of a different etymology.

    To start, in Early Modern Dutch the words spook and spoken also meant ‘omen’ and ‘to divine’ respectively, senses which were longer preserved in the forms voorspook and voorspoken. Moreover, the 15th century Vocabularium Latino-Theutonicum (a.k.a. Teuthonista) has a feminine spoke ‘wizardry, divination’.

    After examining all the regional forms, such as Low German spouk in the dialect of Groningen (where ou reliably continues Germanic ), I have concluded that the original form was most likely *spōk-. This would fit an ablaut relation with Old Norse spakr ‘wise’ and Middle Dutch spaken ‘spiegelen, een voorbeeld nemen’. That is to say, *spōk- and spakr can be explained as derivations of *spakōną, the precursor of spaken.

    In turn, the lot is best connected with Old Norse spá ‘prophecy’ and German spähen ‘to see’, of the root *speh-. As is known, that continues Indo-European *speḱ- ‘to see, look, observe’. In Latin, the same root is found in spectrum ‘appearance; apparition’, a word which ended up as English specter ‘apparition, ghost’.

    Admittedly, *spakōną has an unexpected *k instead of *h if it is to belong to this root. I propose that it arose through paradigm leveling of an intensive/iterative verb *spakkōþi ‘he/she sees’, *spagunanþi ‘they see’, from *spoḱ-néh₂-ti, *spoḱ-nh₂-énti, itself with *kk by Kluge’s law.

  3. Olivier van Renswoude

    Correction: spaken was Early Modern Dutch, not Middle Dutch.

  4. Gerhard van Huyssteen

    Good day,

    Thank you for an interesting article. I have to admit that I find Olivier van Renswoude’s explanation quite convincing – so thank you also for that.

  5. […] October 20, 2021, I wrote a post on the origin of the word spook. In a comment, a Dutch scholar offered his etymology of it. He derived the word from the root of […]

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