Claremont: my most favorite ghost town

by Mellissa Martinez

My three-year-old surprised me last week when he asked to be a ghost for the Village Venture parade. “What kind of ghost?” I replied, expecting him to say “a Spider Man or Hulk ghost.” “A white ghost,” he answered, matter of fact. Somehow the superhero mania that takes over on Halloween had temporarily escaped him. Felix intended to stick a sheet over his head and go downtown in search of candy.

I carefully cut eyeholes into an old sheet while channeling Casper and wondering, are ghosts inherently good or bad? From a historical perspective, the answer is both. The word comes from Old English gast, with many meanings; ‘soul, spirit, life, breath, angel, and demon.’ Gast can be traced back to Germanic and the earlier Proto Indo European root *gheis- ‘excited, amazed, and frightened.’ Modern relatives of ghost, from the same origin, are ‘aghast,’ ‘ghastly,’ ‘poltergeist,’ and ‘zeitgeist, first translated as ‘time-spirit.’

In Old Germanic, ‘ghost’ referred to a ‘supernatural being,’ with its primary sense connected to the idea of ‘wounding’ or ‘tearing to pieces.’ In other words, a ghost was bad news. Once the word came to Old English, however, it was used to translate the Latin spiritus in Christian texts. This biblical use accounts largely for our current notion of ‘ghost’ as pious. Of course, the beatific Holy Ghost is still preserved in the Christian trinity today. The concept of a scary ‘ghost’ as in ‘disembodied spirit of a dead person’ more accurately reflects the word’s ancient meaning, and has existed side-by-side with the saintly ‘ghost’ for centuries. 

I suspect that Claremont will be swarming with ghosts this evening. If you see a ghoul heading up  the pathway, lock the door. Unlike ghost, this haunt is definitively nefarious. ‘Ghoul’ comes from the Arabic ghul, ‘an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses.’

As the story goes, the ghul wasn’t always satisfied after a visit to the cemetery so he would snatch children and eat them as well. This explains its Arabic root word, ghala, ‘he seized.’ It sounds as if the Arabic ghul is similar to the bogeyman, who has been used by parents to terrify children into good behavior for years.

The word ‘bogeyman’ first appeared in English in the mid-1500s as a combination of bugge, ‘something frightening, scarecrow,’ and man. A century later, bugge led to another word, ‘bug,’ which was used first in reference to bedbugs but eventually for most household insects.

Like the hideous ghoul, goblin is also squarely on the malevolent side. It refers to a ‘devil or incubus’ and has also been defined as a ‘grotesque sprite or elf.’ This word comes from the Old French gobelin, which some suggest is connected to Greek kobalos, ‘rogue or knave.’ Goblins are especially busy at night. The Old English word mare meant ‘incubus or monster’ and came from the Germanic maron, ‘goblin.’ Combined with ‘night,’ the word ‘nightmare’ originally referred to the goblin, who visits one’s dreams.

Interestingly, many Indo European words that describe ghost-like figures have a double meaning that pertains to sight or vision. Consider ‘apparition,’ ‘appearance’ and ‘visitor.’ The words ‘phantom’ and ‘phantasm’ also relate to sight as they can be traced back to the Greek phantasma, ‘image, unreality.’ ‘Specter,’ or ‘terrifying spirit’ comes from the Latin spectrum, ‘appearance, vision, or apparition.’ 

Tonight, if you think you see a little haunt scurrying up your walk in search of candy, keep in mind that the word ‘haunt’ can be traced all the way back to the Germanic *haimaz- meaning ‘home.’ As I see it, our homes in Claremont would certainly not be the same without tiny ghosts, goblins and even a few superheroes invading the streets on Halloween night.




Submit a Comment

Share This