Why Do Ghosts Say "Boo!"? The Tradition Dates Back Centuries

The origins of the exclamation "boo" aren't as scary as you'd think.

ghost in the mist - punny halloween costumes

We're all familiar with ghost stories. Every Halloween season, we drape sheets over our heads and illuminate our faces with flashlights as we regale each other with terrifying tales from the great beyond. Experts peg the earliest ghost story to around the first century C.E., and most key elements have remained the same over the centuries⁠: a misty white figure lurking in the shadows, waiting to startle you with a "boo!" Sure, the mist, the white, and the mystery all make sense. But the "boo"? Not so much. So, why do ghosts say "boo!" anyway?

We might not use it that often in the day-to-day, but the exclamation "boo" (or other variations of it) has actually been part of our lexicon for nearly five centuries. Its first appearance in text goes back to the 1560 play Smyth Which Forged Hym a New Dame. In the text, one of the characters, the blacksmith, remarks, "Speke now, let me se/and say ones bo!" Back then, "bo" was used as a way to announce one's own presence. So, the blacksmith is essentially pleading with the other character on stage to talk to him.

Over time, the word started taking on some spookier undertones. In 18th-century Scotland, "bo," "boo," and "bu" were frequently combined with other words to describe fearsome things. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term "bu-kow" was applied to "anything frightful:" scarecrows, hobgoblins, that sort of thing. By the middle of the 18th century, "boo" had become "a word that was used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children," according to author Gilbert Crokatt's 1738 book Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd. And then, the 1863 play Punch and Judy featured a ghost using "boo" to frighten people, one of the first examples of a spirit using the exclamation.

While it's common for ghosts in the English-speaking world to say "boo," around the globe, the term takes on different forms. For example, a French ghost might startle you with a "hou," and a Czech ghost might spook you with a "baf." Oh, and then there are the cases in which "boo" sounds the same, but is spelled totally differently. For instance, in Spain, an alternative rendering of the word is "buu." But, no matter which way you spell it or translate it, if a ghost says pretty much anything to you, "boo" or otherwise, it's likely going to give you a fright. And for more Halloween origin stories, Here's the Surprising Spooky Origin Story of the Jack-o'-Lantern.

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