Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
October is the one month of the year when bystanders are not cowed by the appearance of skeletons in the window, huge spider webs in the trees, and tombstones on the lawn. Horror movies hold court on big screens across the country, and pop-up costume stores empty their shelves as celebrants young and old prepare their disguises for Halloween night.
But our bodies are not the only thing we can dress up for the holiday. Our vocabulary, too, can open up new avenues for describing the horror of the holiday and the joys of the darkness. Add these terms to your Halloween word hoard.
The Greek word eidolon originally referred to one’s reflection — in water or in a mirror. Over time its senses expanded, indicating any unsubstantial image, from a reflection to a phantom. A classic example of an eidolon is the horror-movie trope of the monster who appears behind a character in the mirror, but when the character turns around, there’s nothing there.
The word began appearing in English texts in the 18th century, and it can also refer to an ideal version of something — the unreachable image of perfection. Eidolons is an acceptable plural, but eidola is the classic version.
This word from around the beginning of the 16th century means “weird, ghastly, and unnatural, especially in a way that inspires fear.” The etymological path of this word is uncertain. One etymologist connected it to the Old English el- “otherwise” and rice “realm,” so that something that is eldritch is from an “other realm.” A more modern analysis says that it is somehow related to the word elf — a Scottish variant of the word is elphrish.
Goety and Theurgy
Goety and theurgy, two words that began appearing in the mid-16th century, are the two opposing forces of magic: dark and light. Both trace back to Greek: A goetos was a sorcerer … or a charlatan. (It seems the ancient Greeks were as dubious of claims of magic as modern Americans.) The “magic” that a goetos performed was called goeteia, probably related to a word meaning “to groan, to weep,” and it is from this word that we derive the English goety “black magic,” sometimes known by the all-Latin term necromancy, literally “divination from a corpse.”
Theurgy, on the other hand, comes from the Greek theos “god” and ergos “working.” Miracles fall under the heading of theurgy, but in a broader sense, any “white magic” is theurgical.
Derived from Latin, this word combines horrere “to bristle with fear” and pilus “hair.” Horripilation is a fancier name for the appearance of goose bumps.
Granted, since Poltergeist began scaring moviegoers in 1982, this word is widely known, but not all know where it came from. The word dates back to the 1830s and comes from the German verb poltern “knock, rattle” and Geist “spirit, ghost.” A poltergeist is literally a “noisy ghost,” a supernatural scapegoat on which you can blame the random, inexplicable noises that occur around the house — especially at night and when you’re already a little unsettled.
It isn’t often that a movie’s title acts as a spoiler for the movie itself, but that is the case for 2015’s The Revenant … but only if you know what the word means. Revenant comes from the French revenir, which is derived from the Latin revenire. This verb is formed from the prefix re- “back, again” and the verb venire “to come.” A revenant is someone who “comes back” — especially someone who comes back from the dead.
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