Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloweenish words

Halloweenish words

English includes heaps upon heaps of lovely words referring to unlovely things. This week we’ll take a look at a few of them.

The Dutch verb gluren meant to leer. In the 1300s it (or one of its Scandinavian siblings) made its way into Old English as gloom, initially a verb meaning to look sullen or displeased. The adjective gloomy showed up in the 1580s & the noun version of gloom, meaning darkness or obscurity, first appeared in writing in 1629.

Though we don’t know its roots, the Latin word luridis meant pale yellow & ghastly. By the 1650s it showed up in English as lurid, meaning ghastly or horrible, adding the meaning glowing in the dark by 1727 & the meaning sensational by the 1850s. Though I would love it if lurid were somehow related to the term yellow journalism, no such link seems to exist.

The Scandinavian tongues all had some version of the word grim (grimm, grimmaz, grimmr, grym), meaning furious, dire, painful, savage or cruel. Because of some similar-sounding words meaning thunder in Old Church Slavonic & Russian, etymologists have posited that grim’s grandmother words started out as an imitation of the sound of thunder. Grim made its way to Old English in the 1100s along with its sister-word grima, a noun referring to a ghoul, goblin or specter. Sadly, grima didn’t live very long, possibly taken out by some sort of linguistic grim reaper. Sources suggest that the term grim reaper didn’t show up until 1847, though one could argue that the grim reaper had been doing his job for centuries with no recognition.

The Greek word for black was melanin & the Greek word for bile was khole. Because depression was seen as a problem with the body’s humors, specifically pinned on the black bile, the word for overpowering sadness was melancholia, or black bile. This word made its way through Old French to English by the year 1300, to become melancholy.

Back in the 2nd century BCE, some folks we now call the Maccabees got fed up with intolerance & against all expectations, rose up to fight their mighty Greek oppressors. Though their story has its triumphant elements, the outcome wasn’t good for the Maccabees, known thereafter as martyrs. At some point in Medieval Latin the story was told as the dance of the Maccabees, or Machabaeorum. This term made its way through Old French to land in English in the early 1400s as macabre, meaning involving death or violence in a strange, frightening or unpleasant manner. 

On a grim-related side-note, any of you interested in hearing some Halloweenish tales might tune into Tales on the Rock, my half hour fiction show at 9:00 PM PST Sunday 10/26. I’ll be narrating a nightmarish tale of my own, then a Bradbury story, & last, Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”.

May any grim, gloomy, macabre, melancholy or luridness you encounter this season be in good fun.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Etymonline


  1. Love that melancholia is black bile. Seems to fit it perfectly. Dance of the Maccabees reminds me of a Stephen King book I read years ago, think it was nonfiction, "Danse Macabre," a history of horror fiction if I remember it right. Your weekly blog proves the adage, you learn something new everyday. :) I do. Especially here.

  2. Hey again Paul - thanks so much for becoming a regular visitor, & always a positive one at that.

  3. I like the word melancholy. It's what I use to describe my rare not so cheerful dispositions. It sounds romantic and less dire that depressed or even sad. And now I know that it really means black bile. Hum. Not so romantic. And kind'a dire after all! Thanks for the Halloweeny words!

  4. All new and fascinating stuff to me. I had no idea there was a connection between the Maccabee and macabre, but once you explain it, it all makes perfect sense.

    And if yellow journalism doesn't come from "lurid"--I agree it should--maybe you'll have to explain its origins to us sometime?

  5. Ahoy Anne & Christine,
    Like you, Anne, I was astounded at the Maccabee/macabre connection, & like you, Christine, I preferred not knowing the background of the lovely-sounding "melancholy". Thanks for popping by & having something to say.