Bradley's Believe It or Not

Oct 31, 2013 -- 2:52pm

It's Halloween and everyone says boo, because everyone thinks that's what ghosts say. Since when?
   Researchers say the exclamation that comes at the end of "Boo!" had long been used to frighten English-speaking children going back at least until the 18th century, but the best anyone can tell, the first appearance of "boo" in print comes from a 1738 pamphleteer entitled, "Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd," in which author GILBERT CROKATT defines it as, "a word that's used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children." Why anyone in Scotland would want to frighten a crying child, Crokatt doesn't say. By the 1820s, if not sooner, the "boo!" word had become the verbal device of all proper ghosts --and people with sheets on their heads.

   Variations of the word boo --including bo and boh-- have been found in books as published as far back as 500 years ago. You can see how the word bogeyman might've evolved from this over the years.
   The combination of the voiced, plosive b- and the roaring -oo sounds makes boo a particularly startling word, as linguists have often pointed out. And various affectations in your voice, like pronouncing the vowels at a higher pitch, which may add to its scariness.

   What about using the word, "boo," for jeering from the crowd?
   That doesn't seem to have come about until the 19th century, although audience heckling is at least as old as the Greek plays when the audience applauded to show its approval, and shouted and whistled to show displeasure. Today, of course, Greeks boo their government.
   And then there's "Boo" as in slang to mean boyfriend or girlfriend. Seems to have derived from the French word "beau," meaning lover. Boo was also hipster slang in the 1950s for marijuana.


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