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This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'?


Leah Donnella

spooky ghost meaning

A runner passes a ghostly sculpture on display between Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach in Sydney. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

A runner passes a ghostly sculpture on display between Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach in Sydney.

So, you're at your friend's elaborately decorated Halloween party. There are cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, bloody handprints on the wall, a frothing potion brewing on the stove. It's creepy! And scary! But is it ... spooky?

Sure, "spook" can refer to a ghost. It can refer to a spy. But as many of us know, it's also, sometimes, a racial slur for black people. One of our Ask Code Switch readers wrote in to ask about the etiquette of using words like spook and spooky.

During this, the season of murder mysteries and haunted hayrides, is it insensitive to say that you were spooked?

On Halloween, Insensitivity Goes Beyond Kimonos And Black Face

On Halloween, Insensitivity Goes Beyond Kimonos And Black Face

So here's the deal: Spook comes from the Dutch word for apparition, or specter. The noun was first used in English around the turn of the nineteenth century. Over the next few decades, it developed other forms, like spooky, spookish, and of course, the verb, to spook.

From there, it seems, the word lived a relatively innocuous life for many years, existing in the liminal space between surprise and mild fear.

It wasn't until World War II that spook started to refer to black people . The black Army pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute were referred to as the "Spookwaffe" — waffe being the German word for weapon, or gun. (Luftwaffe was the name of the German air force).

Once the word "spook" was linked to blackness, it wasn't long before it became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur.

But that wasn't the end of the story for spook. The word had a bit of a renaissance in the 1970s, with the release of the novel and classic film, The Spook Who Sat By The Door , by Sam Greenlee .

Both the book and movie tell the fictional story of the first black man recruited and trained by the CIA. That man goes through his training, works for a little while, and then quits his job and moves back to Chicago, where he secretly trains a group of young black "freedom fighters."

What A Thug's Life Looked Like In 19th Century India

What A Thug's Life Looked Like In 19th Century India

The title of the movie, of course, both refers to spook meaning "black person" and spook meaning "spy." And as a satirical piece of literature written by an African-American author in the years following the civil rights movement, the use of "spook" was infused with an extra dose of irony.

Renee Blake is a sociolinguist who studies the way language is used in society, "whether it's based on race, class, gender or the like." She says she doesn't hear the word spook all that often, but she does have two salient reference points for it.

The first is The Spook Who Sat By The Door , and the second is the 2000 book and 2003 movie The Human Stain, by Phillip Roth. His novel tells the story of a professor at a New England college who is forced to resign after he calls two African-American students spooks.

The word spook hasn't just gotten fictional people in trouble. In 2010, Target apologized for selling a Halloween toy called "Spook Drop Parachuters" — literally miniature black figurines with orange parachutes.

In light of all this baggage, I asked Blake what she thought about the use of words like spook and spooky during Halloween. She said that, while it's clear that spook has multiple, distinct meanings, it's still important to think about context.

The way that certain words get attached to particular racial groups is incredibly complicated. ( Take thug , for example .)

"Be thoughtful about the fact that [spook] now might have the connotation of referring to a black person in a disparaging way," Blake says. "If someone says, 'Did you get spooked?' and there are no black people there, then, OK, you mean 'Did you get scared or frightened?' That's fine, I get it."

But once you insert black people into the situation, Blake says, it's important to be more tactful. "We know that the word 'niggardly' doesn't mean a black person, but let's be sensitive. Are you going to use the word niggardly in front of a group of young students in a classroom? No."

So, this Halloween, be a little cautious when it comes to describing your surroundings. And don't be afraid of creeping into the thesaurus for a spooky synonym.

To me, it's more fun to be aghast, bloodcurdled, or spine-chilled than "spooked."

Got a race question for Code Switch? Ask us here .

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Five Scientific Explanations for Spooky Sensations

What feels like a supernatural presence might actually be vibrations outside of humans’ conscious perception

Andrea Michelson

Andrea Michelson


​ ‘Tis the season to celebrate the supernatural, whether that means visiting a haunted house or donning a spooky costume. But while some might scare themselves silly in the name of Halloween fun, 42 percent of Americans believe ghosts are for real, according to a 2013 Harris Poll . The belief in ghosts dates back to at least ancient Mesopotamian times, and it seems to have lodged itself in the collective psyche. But in many cases, science can explain what might seem like a message from beyond. Here are five scientific explanations for encounters with the supernatural.

The “Fear Frequency”

Just below the range of human hearing, infrasound can cause some strange sensations. Humans can’t hear sound below 20 hertz, but some people subconsciously respond to lower frequencies with feelings of fear or dread, reports Jennifer Ouellette for Gizmodo . In one account from 1998, engineer Vic Tandy of Coventry University spent a night in a lab believed to be haunted. He and his colleagues experienced anxiety and distress, felt cold shivers down their spines, and Tandy even reported seeing a dark blob out of the corner of his eye. It turned out that there was a silent fan creating sound waves at around 19 hertz, the exact frequency that can cause the human eyeball to vibrate and “see” optical illusions. “When we finally switched it off, it was as if a huge weight was lifted,” Tandy told Chris Arnot for the Guardian .

Unusual Electromagnetic Fields

Electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are commonly used to identify electrical problems. They’re also a staple of the ghost-hunter’s toolbox, reports Erika W. Smith for Refinery29 . Neuroscientist Michael Persinger thinks normal variation in electromagnetic fields could be a possible explanation for supposed hauntings. He tested this theory in the 1980s by having people wear helmets that delivered weak magnetic stimulation. Eighty percent of his test subjects said they felt “an unexplained presence in the room” when they wore the helmets. What’s more, famous spooky spots like Hampton Court Palace have been found to have unusual electromagnetic fields, reports Neil Dagnall for the Conversation .

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

On a Halloween episode of This American Life , host Ira Glass and toxicologist Albert Donnay unearth an old ghost story published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. As recounted by “Mrs. H,” her family moved into an old house and began experiencing what seemed like paranormal activity—the sound of footsteps, strange voices and even feeling like they were held down in their beds by an unseen person. Meanwhile, the houseplants were dying, and Mrs. H’s children felt weak and suffered from headaches. A quick investigation revealed that a faulty furnace was filling the house with carbon monoxide fumes. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hallucinations and sickness, explaining all of their symptoms. After the furnace was repaired, the “hauntings” stopped.

Sleep Paralysis

The most common explanation for a ghost sighting is sleep paralysis, sleep specialist Priyanka Yadav tells NBC News ’s Diane Mapes. The body is naturally paralyzed during REM sleep, but the feeling of paralysis can cause terror if experienced while awake. Sometimes, the body and brain get their wires crossed, and a person can experience a few seconds to a couple minutes of waking paralysis, which is often accompanied by hallucinations. Yadav says the hallucinations can involve anything from spiders to ghosts and are usually characterized by a feeling of dread. When someone reports a “haunting” that happened right around bedtime or after waking in the middle of the night—and that they were so scared, they couldn’t move—it’s enough for Yadav to diagnose a case of sleep paralysis.

The Power of Suggestion

Social psychology might have an explanation for reported hauntings that the natural sciences can’t resolve. Refinery29 reports that one study found the power of suggestion to be strong enough to make people believe they witnessed a supernatural event. Participants watched a video of a purported psychic supposedly bending a key with his mind. The people who were exposed to positive social influence—meaning that an actor in the group said they saw the key bend—were more likely to report they saw the key bend, too. Participants who were in a room with naysayers and skeptics were more likely to doubt the validity of the trick, but just one person’s confident assertion that they believed the psychokinesis was enough to make others believe it as well.

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Andrea Michelson

Andrea Michelson | | READ MORE

Andrea Michelson is a former digital intern with Smithsonian magazine. 

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Halloween spooky skeletons

Spooky Halloween: the origin of “spook”

spooky ghost meaning

Word Origins And How We Know Them

Anatoly Liberman's column on word origins,  The Oxford Etymologist , appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via  email  or  RSS .

  • By Anatoly Liberman
  • October 20 th 2021

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 s pook . 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.

spooky ghost meaning

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 sp r echen 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.

spooky ghost meaning

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 ( sp ittle was associated with sp erm ). 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.

spooky ghost meaning

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.

Anatoly Liberman  is the author of  Word Origins And How We Know Them  as well as  An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction . His column on word origins,  The Oxford Etymologist , appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of  [email protected] ; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via  email  or  RSS .

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Recent Comments

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

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 *ō ), 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.

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

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.

[…] 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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A blurry ghostly figure stands at the top of a darkened stairway.

Are ghosts real? A social psychologist examines the evidence

spooky ghost meaning

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of South Carolina

Disclosure statement

Barry Markovsky does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of South Carolina provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

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spooky ghost meaning

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to [email protected] .

Is it possible for there to be ghosts? – Madelyn, age 11, Fort Lupton, Colorado

Certainly, lots of people believe in ghosts – a spirit left behind after someone who was alive has died.

In a 2021 poll of 1,000 American adults , 41% said they believe in ghosts, and 20% said they had personally experienced them. If they’re right, that’s more than 50 million spirit encounters in the U.S. alone.

That includes the owner of a retail shop near my home who believes his place is haunted. When I asked what most convinced him of this, he sent me dozens of eerie security camera video clips. He also brought in ghost hunters who reinforced his suspicions.

Some of the videos show small orbs of light gliding around the room. In others, you can hear faint voices and loud bumping sounds when nobody’s there. Others show a book flying off a desk and products jumping off a shelf.

It’s not uncommon for me to hear stories like this. As a sociologist , some of my work looks at beliefs in things like ghosts , aliens , pyramid power and superstitions .

Along with others who practice scientific skepticism, I keep an open mind while maintaining that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Tell me you had a burger for lunch, and I’ll take your word for it. Tell me you shared your fries with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost, and I’ll want more evidence.

In the “spirit” of critical thinking, consider the following three questions:

Are ghosts possible?

People may think they’re experiencing ghosts when they hear strange voices, see moving objects, witness balls or wisps of light or even translucent people.

Yet no one describes ghosts as aging, eating, breathing or using bathrooms – despite plumbers receiving many calls about toilets “ ghost-flushing .”

So could ghosts be made of a special kind of energy that hovers and flies without dissipating?

If that’s the case, that means when ghosts glow, move objects and make sounds, they are acting like matter – something that takes up space and has mass, like wood, water, plants and people. Conversely, when passing through walls or vanishing, they must not act like matter.

But centuries of physics research have found nothing like this exists, which is why physicists say ghosts can’t exist .

And so far, there is no proof that any part of a person can continue on after death.

What’s the evidence?

Never before in history have people recorded so many ghost encounters, thanks in part to mobile phone cameras and microphones. It seems there would be great evidence by now. But scientists don’t have it .

Instead, there are lots of ambiguous recordings sabotaged by bad lighting and faulty equipment. But popular television shows on ghost hunting convince many viewers that blurry images and emotional reactions are proof enough.

As for all the devices ghost hunters use to capture sounds, electrical fields and infrared radiation – they may look scientific, but they’re not . Measurements are worthless without some knowledge of the thing you’re measuring.

When ghost hunters descend on an allegedly haunted location for a night of meandering and measurement, they usually find something they later deem paranormal. It may be a moving door (breeze?), a chill (gap in the floorboards?), a glow (light entering from outside?), electrical fluctuations (old wiring?), or bumps and faint voices (crew in other rooms?).

Whatever happens, ghost hunters will draw a bull’s-eye around it, interpret that as “evidence” and investigate no further .

Are there alternative explanations?

Personal experiences with ghosts can be misleading due to the limitations of human senses. That’s why anecdotes can’t substitute for objective research. Alleged hauntings usually have plenty of non-ghostly explanations.

One example is that retail establishment in my neighborhood. I reviewed the security camera clips and gathered information about the store’s location and layout, and the exact equipment used in the recordings.

First, the “orbs”: Videos captured many small globes of light seemingly moving around the room.

In reality, the orbs are tiny particles of dust wafting close to the camera lens, made to “bloom” by the camera’s infrared lights. That they appear to float around the room is an optical illusion. Watch any orb video closely and you’ll see they never go behind objects in the room. That’s exactly what you’d expect with dust particles close to the camera lens.

Next, voices and bumps: The shop is in a busy corner mini-mall. Three walls abut sidewalks, loading zones and parking areas; an adjacent store shares the fourth. The security camera mics probably recorded sounds from outdoors, other rooms and the adjacent unit. The owner never checked for these possibilities.

Then, the flying objects: The video shows objects falling off the showroom wall. The shelf rests on adjustable brackets, one of which wasn’t fully seated in its slot. The weight of the shelf caused the bracket to settle into place with a visible jerk. This movement sent some items tumbling off the shelf.

Then, the flying book: I used a simple trick to recreate the event at home: a hidden string taped inside a book’s cover, wrapped around the kitchen island, and tugged by my right hand out of camera range.

Now I can’t prove there wasn’t a ghost in the original video. The point is to provide a more plausible explanation than “it must have been a ghost.”

One final consideration: Virtually all ghostly experiences involve impediments to making accurate perceptions and judgments – bad lighting , emotional arousal , sleep phenomena , social influences , culture , a misunderstanding of how recording devices work , and the prior beliefs and personality traits of those who claim to see ghosts. All of these hold the potential to induce unforgettable ghostly encounters.

But all can be explained without ghosts being real.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to [email protected] . Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

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The History Behind 8 Halloween Words


A haunted house is one that is scary, usually because of the presence of spirits or ghosts (and typically also in need of a paint job). Though the verb haunt does mean “to visit or inhabit as a ghost,” that’s not the original sense of the word. In fact, for centuries the word had a perfectly unfrightening set of meanings: “to visit often” and “to continually seek the company of.” In the 1500s, haunt began to mean “to have a disquieting or harmful effect on,” as in “that problem may come back to haunt you.” The meaning here is simply the lingering presence of the problem, not the possibly scary nature of the problem itself; it is applied to thoughts, memories, and emotions. The noun haunt retains this fright-neutral definition, “a place that you go to often,” as in “one of my favorite old haunts.”

A lingering idea, memory, or feeling may have led to the ghostly meaning of haunt , or one by a disembodied or imaginary spirit, proving that what we truly fear is in our head.


Ghosts may be the most basic of Halloween costumes, and ghost is a basic English word, going all the way back a thousand years to the earliest recorded evidence of the language. It originally meant “vital spark” or “the seat of life or intelligence,” which is still used in the phrase “give up the ghost.” The most common meaning today, “a disembodied soul” or “the soul or specter of a deceased person” came next, a meaning based on the ancient folkloric notion that the spirit is separable from the body and can continue its existence after death.

Recently during a ghost tour at the restaurant, someone snapped a photo that appears to show a ghost hanging out of a third-floor window. People say the photo resembles a little girl with her hand stretched out, and that observation coincides with a ghost story from there. — WJZ , 21 Oct. 2019

An older spelling of ghost , gast , is the root of aghast (“struck with terror, shocked”) and ghastly (“frightening”). The German word for ghost , geist , is part of the word zeitgeist , which literally means “spirit of the time.”


On October 28, The Damned are hosting (and playing) the "night of a thousand vampires" at London's Palldium. The band is hoping to make it the largest gathering of vampires ever recorded, and are trying to get into the Guinness book of world records. The band is requiring that people come dressed as vamps, and upon arrival, you have to sign in to confirm your Drac-status. The band is playing two sets and you can see their statement below. — John Gentile, Punknews.org , 22 Oct. 2019

As legends go, vampires are certainly ancient, but the word vampire is not. Legends of bloodsucking creatures go back to Ancient Greece, with harrowing tales of them rising from burial places at night to drink peoples’ blood before hiding from dawn’s daylight. These stories were especially popular in eastern Europe, and the word vampire originally comes from the Serbian word vampir , which then passed from German to French, coming to English in the 1700s.

The extended senses of vampire , “one who lives by preying on others” and a synonym of vampire bat , were both in use within a few decades.


Banshee came from combining the Gaelic words meaning “woman of fairyland,” but any positive associations with fairies ends there. Banshees are female spirits that, if seen or heard wailing under the windows of a house, foretell of a death in the family that lives there. Today the word is most frequently heard in the idiom “scream like a banshee” or “wail like a banshee,” which shows the power of myth and the imaginative power of language, since probably no one has actually heard one.


Goblin is a word that has lost some of its menace over the centuries. When Milton used it in Paradise Lost , it packed a punch as another name for Death:

Whence and what art thou, execrable shape, That dar'st, though grim and terrible, advance Thy miscreated Front athwart my way To yonder Gates? through them I mean to pass, That be assur'd, without leave askt of thee: Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof, Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heav'n. To whom the Goblin full of wrauth reply'd. Art thou that Traitor Angel, art thou hee […]

Goblin means “an ugly or grotesque sprite sometimes conceived as evil and malicious and sometimes as merely playful and mischievous,” and sprite , a cute-sounding word, is simply a variation of spirit , originally meaning “soul,” and therefore a synonym of ghost , the oldest sense of which was also “soul.” The playfulness of goblin probably goes back to its roots in the Greek word meaning “rogue.”

Hobgoblin picks up on that idea of playfulness, and is usually a less threatening kind of spirit. The hob of hobgoblin comes from a Middle English nickname for “Robert” or “Robin,” and referred to a rustic or unsophisticated country dweller. Ralph Waldo Emerson used it famously in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”


The distinguishing quality of a wraith , compared with other ghosts, is its specificity. Originally, it referred to either the exact likeness of a living person seen as an apparition just before that person’s death as a kind of spectral premonition of bad news, or a visible apparition of a dead person.

The most famous spirit associated with the city would have to be the White Lady of the Berliner Schloss. Long, long before its current reconstruction, the halls of the palace were said to be roamed by a female wraith - the first reports hail from the mid-17th century. — Michael Stuchbery, TheLocal.de , 16 Oct. 2019

When referring to a living person, it’s a synonym of doppelgänger , or the “spirit double” of a living person (as opposed to a ghost, which refers to the spirit of a dead person). Doppelgänger is now frequently used in a broader sense to mean simply “someone who looks like someone else.” When referring to a dead person, wraith is a synonym of revenant , which originally referred to a ghost of a particular person and subsequently has been used for a person who returns after a long absence.

A more rare synonym of both senses of wraith is fetch (which is unrelated to the fetch that means “go and get”).


Ghoul is a relatively recent English word, borrowed from Arabic in the 1700s. Because it’s spelled with gh- , it looks vaguely like the Old English words ghost and ghastly (which share a common root in the Old English word gāst , meaning “spirit” or “ghost”). In fact, it comes from the Arabic word ghūl , derived from the verb that means “to seize,” and originally meant “a legendary evil being held to rob graves and feed on corpses.” The word was introduced to western literature by the French translation of Arabian Nights .


Specter originally meant “a visible disembodied spirit” in English—a good synonym for ghost .

Legend has it that a female specter who haunted the churchyard in Rathkeale, Limerick was so terrifying that all who looked upon her died soon after. A local man banished the ghost by slicing off her arm with his sword and praying for the rest of the night. In an odd coincidence in 2009, the Limerick Newswire reported that a tree stump in the churchyard contains the image of the Virgin Mary and Child and that hundreds of visitors had come to the area to pray. — Irish Central , 24 Oct. 2019

But, unlike ghost , the notion of being visible is paramount in specter , which came to English from the French word spectre , which developed directly from the Latin word spectrum , meaning “appearance” or “specter,” itself based on the verb specere , meaning “to look.” Specere is also the root of many English words that have to do with appearance: aspect , conspicuous , inspect , perspective , and spectacle . It’s also a distant relative of spy —appropriately enough, since Spectre , using the British spelling, is the name of one of the enemy agencies in the James Bond novels (and the title of one the films).

Specter can also mean “a ghostly and usually fear-inspiring vision of the imagination”—in other words, something that haunts the mind.

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like or befitting a spook or ghost; suggestive of spooks .

eerie; scary.

(especially of horses) nervous; skittish.

Origin of spooky

Other words from spooky.

  • spook·i·ly, adverb
  • spook·i·ness, noun

Words Nearby spooky

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

How to use spooky in a sentence

It’s always interesting and well-directed, even when we’re fed horror cliches galore, from spooky dollhouses to things lurking in the basement.

Thanks to campfire tales and multimillion-dollar horror flicks, spooky notions can infiltrate our subconscious even without any real-life supernatural encounters.

In fact, “investors may be convinced that Halloween was purposely placed in October because the market’s actions can be so spooky ,” CFRA’s Sam Stovall wrote in a recent note.

So much so that CFRA’s Stovall quips, “Investors may be convinced that Halloween was purposely placed in October because the market’s actions can be so spooky .”

For example, key to the quantum internet is entanglement — that “ spooky action at a distance” in which particles are linked across time and space, and measuring the properties of one particle instantly reveals the other’s properties.

Warne looked—in the words of the Daily Mail—“like a spooky waxwork.”

spooky Tooth had reformed quite a while before I received the call and were touring quite often.

When we all saw this, both my brothers turned to look at me in the car and pulled ‘ spooky ’ faces at me.

“As much as I love sunny meadows and bunnies, I also love spooky forests with owls,” she says.

Formerly a playground for Sunday school kids, it has a spooky , cloistered feel to it.

I don't believe there is anything spooky about that building.

"I hate to go through the grove, it's so spooky ," she said, as they hurried along.

And again the ghostly hoot of the owl made the little patch of woods seem more spooky and lonesome.

A lonely owl answered with a dismal shriek from a distant tree, making the night seem still more spooky .

Those were gnomes—the real spooky , spinky kind that give you the shivers up and down your back when they're out gnoming.

British Dictionary definitions for spooky

/ ( ˈspuːkɪ ) /

ghostly or eerie : a spooky house

resembling or appropriate to a ghost

US easily frightened; highly strung

Derived forms of spooky

  • spookily , adverb
  • spookiness , noun

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012


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