When out and about dealing with spooky ghosts this Halloween, you’ll likely hear a boo or two. Here’s why those spirits and sprites do boo they way they do.
Full disclosure: None of us here at Bathroom Reader HQ have actually seen a ghost…let alone hear one. But in old books, movies, and TV shows, they always seem to state, shout, or wail some form of the word “boo!” It’s pretty scary to hear, even secondhand, but is it frightening because a ghost is saying it, or do ghosts say it because it’s frightening? Probably a little bit of both.
The modern ghost noise of boo can be traced back to a 16th century English short story called “Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.” In that piece, a character uses “bo!” as a hypothetical scary noise (“Speke now, let me se, and say ones bo!”) Over time, that bo evolved into boh, and headed over to Scotland. By the early 18th century, “boh” was a word used to silence ornery and obnoxious children. Linguistically, it’s a good choice: the “b” is crisp and sudden, the “ooo” is ominous and threatening. By the 1820s in Scotland, boh, and then “boo” became a thing costumed kids shouted at each other during Halloween-like predecessors.
But “boo” wasn’t born in a vacuum (which, as we all know from Ghostbusters, actually suck ghosts in, rather than spit them out). As English is a fairly modern language, many of our words can be traced back to ancient Latin and Greek terms. Such is the case for boo. There’s a Latin word boare, and a frighteningly similar Greek word boaein. Both words mean “to cry out” or “shout.” Amusingly, this means that when a ghost is trying to be all spooky and scary by yelling out “boo,” it is literally and actually saying “I am yelling.” Which isn’t so scary.
Interestingly, other languages have their own unique and old variations on what they think ghosts say. For example, if you were to encounter a French ghost, it might say “hou.” A Spanish ghost would try to scare you by wailing “uuh.”