Monster, demon, ghoul... find out about the origins of all the scary words

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on English language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 4:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 5:26 PM

I’ve never understood the popularity of horror movies — why on earth are people willing to spend time and money to be scared? But they do, so we may as well delve into words associated with the genre. “Horror” entered the English language during the 13th and 14th centuries through French, and is derived from the Latin verb horrēre, which means to bristle, shudder, shiver and tremble. The notion of shuddering from cold or fear served as the foundation for the original meaning of the Latin noun horror.

The mildest form of horror film in popular culture is the “monster movie”. Monsters are frightening creatures, usually larger than life and twice as unnatural, who attack people indiscriminately. In the famous eponymous novel, the scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein creates a monster by reanimating a corpse, which then escapes his control and attacks people, wreaking death and destruction because it can do nothing else.

“Monster” finds its roots in the Latin word monstrum, signifying “an evil omen”. To the ancient Romans, monsters were essentially harbingers of misfortune, serving as forewarnings of impending doom, striking such fear into people that their apprehensions seemed to materialise. While Roman monsters merely resided in the recesses of their minds, Hollywood brought them into the physical realm. The website Imdb records 87 films with the word “Monster” in its title!

Ghost stories are popular everywhere too. “Ghost” comes from Old English gāst, “spirit”or “soul”. The now-prevailing sense of the word is a disembodied spirit of a dead person, appearing visibly. Many of us hope that our deceased ancestors are enjoying an afterlife, but the spirit of a deceased person that persists in the material world, in a form that we can see or hear, is usually frightening.

Some ghosts are “demons”. The Ancient Greek word daemon merely means “spirit” and we use it in that sense in English too, usually spelled “daemon” or “daimon” to distinguish it from a malevolent “demon”. In Ancient Greek belief, demons were considered to have both positive and negative attributes, and it was not until the Christian era that the term “demon” became exclusively associated with dark or malevolent forces.

Among the more popular horror movies are those featuring vampires. In traditional lore, a “vampire” is a supernatural being that rises from the dead to consume the blood of the living. This creature is often associated with the wooded regions of Hungary and Romania’s Transylvania. Dracula, the vampire famously portrayed by the Victorian English novelist Bram Stoker, and since immortalised in an endless succession of films, has a name with intriguing associations.

“Dracula” essentially translates to “son of Dracul”. In Romanian, “dracul” signifies “the devil”, with “drac” meaning “devil” and “ul” representing “the”. However, the origins of “dracul” trace back to the Latin word “draco”, which means “dragon”. Throughout history, dragons have been closely linked to evil forces, emphasising the thematic connection between the name Dracula and its association with dragons.

Vampires are not the same as “werewolves”. A werewolf, in the realm of fiction, is a creature commonly depicted as the spirit of a dead person transforming itself into a wolf-like being, particularly during a full moon, and howling scarily into the night sky. (It’s important to remind younger readers that there is no credible scientific evidence that werewolves have ever existed!)

Closer to home, for Khaleej Times readers, are “ghouls”. The English language adopted the term “ghoul” from the Arabic word ghūl, referring to a supernatural being associated with Arabian legends. Ghouls are known to inhabit cemeteries and are notorious for targeting individuals who venture into graveyards at night. There are also accounts of ghouls residing in the desert, where they entice unsuspecting individuals in order to consume them.

There’s been a revival of the 1950s craze for zombie movies too. The etymology of the word “zombie”, traces it back to Central Africa and draws parallels with Kongo words like nzambi, denoting a deity endowed with supernatural qualities, and zumbi, signifying a fetish. Hollywood reinvented the term “zombies” in the 20th century to mean spirit creatures who are the “walking dead”, unfeeling and terrifying human-like monsters who relentlessly prey on the living and consume their flesh.

I hope all these scary words leave you unterrified — and better-informed!


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