October 26, 2016

Case File #016.10.26: VAMPIRE

There seems to be substantial discord among etymologists, lexicographers, and linguists when it comes to the origins of the word vampire. While all agree that the noun and its primary sense—that is, “the reanimated body of a dead person that leaves its grave, usually at night, to drink the blood of unwary or slumbering living people”—first entered the English language circa 1730, that's where the harmony basically ends. As to the language from which English acquired the word, the various experts offer at least three theories. Some say it was borrowed from the French vampire, and they argue that the identical spelling supports their opinion; some insist it came from the German vampir, claiming that the Teutonic word appeared first and essentially passed into French and English at the same time; and still others point out that the Hungarian vámpír is even older than the German and is thus likely to have spawned the German, French, and English forms of the word. But regardless of the dispute over which language was the immediate progenitor of the English vampire, does anybody know the word's ultimate source? Well, the answer is . . . probably. The majority of authorities believe that the word's roots wind back to the Old Church Slavonic word opiri, which was essentially used to mean “a reanimated, bloodsucking corpse.” It must be noted, however, that there are those who argue that the noun ultimately came from ubyr, a word meaning “witch” in the Turkic language of the Kazan Tatar people in Russia. Now, if all that etymological discord leaves you feeling a bit too dubious, you may get some satisfaction from this: all of the experts do agree that the modern secondary meaning of vampire, “a person who benefits from ruthlessly taking advantage of others,” was first used around 1740, and all concur that it is from this sense that the slangy noun vamp (“a woman who aggressively seduces and exploits men”) and its related verb sense (“to blatantly set out to seduce and exploit someone”) were derived.

October 20, 2016

Case File #016.10.20: SPOOK

The word spook first appeared as an Americanism circa 1800. Borrowed directly from the Dutch spook, a descendant of the Middle Dutch spooc that was itself a close relative of the Middle Low German spok, the English noun was at first used to mean merely “ghost” or “a visible disembodied spirit.” By the end of the century, however, it had also come to mean “any frightening and seemingly preternatural creature” and was starting to take on its now lesser-known figurative sense of “a haunting or disturbing idea or prospect.” (Today, words such as specter and phantom have all but supplanted spook in denoting the aforesaid figurative meaning.) It wasn't until the early 1940s that spook acquired the additional sense of “an undercover agent or spy,” and the same decade saw the unfortunate development of the noun's offensively disparaging (and now highly indecorous) use as a term for a black person. By the way, spook also has two verb senses: the first, “to haunt, frighten, or otherwise behave like a ghost,” appeared in the English lexicon circa 1865; and the second, “to become suddenly frightened or nervous,” came into general use around 1935.