A Dictionary of Horror: Where Do These Eight Scary Words Come From?

There’s a chill in the air as the days grow shorter and darkness steadily creeps upon us. Yes, it’s that time of year again! (Well, in the northern hemisphere, anyway.) Here at uTalk, we love Halloween just as much as we love languages, and to celebrate the horror and gore we’ve made a list of some of the scariest words in the English language.

Are you terrified of the boogieman hiding under your bed? Feeling suspicious of the strange shadows lurking in your cupboards? Think that eerie tapping from your bedroom window at night is something other than a stray tree branch swaying in the wind?

Well, read on and find out the origins of your favourite creepy words!


From the Old Germanic word ‘gura’ meaning ‘half-digested stomach contents’ (how’s that for disgusting?!), it eventually ended up meaning ‘blood from a wound thickened due to exposure to air’ in modern English.


From Latin ‘horror’ – ‘bristling, shaking, trembling as with cold, fear or terror.’ Because if you feel a sudden gush of cold air in your bedroom late at night that makes you tremble, maybe you’re feeling the horror of knowing something’s not quite right.

Maybe you’re really not alone after all.


From the Kimbundi word ‘nzumbi’ meaning (what else?) – ‘ghost’. On Haiti, pray that an evil witch doctor does not put a spell on you, because even in death your lumbering, shuffling corpse will be his slave forever – his zombie (zonbi)!


From Serbo-Croatian ‘vàmpīr’, referring to the restless dead. A vampire traditionally came back from the dead to drink the blood of the living. If many people in a village started dying in mysterious ways, the concerned villagers would dig up the first one to die. Then, to the shock of everyone present, the exhumed corpse would be plump and fresh-looking, with fresh blood flowing out of its nose and mouth. “Vampire!” the villagers would cry and proceed to decapitate and burn the infernal corpse.

Modern science, of course, would later prove that these signs were all part of the natural decomposition process. But that’s how horror legends come about – through shock and disgust.


English borrowed this word from the Arabic غول‎ (ghūl) and, yes, they are terrifying. In Middle Eastern culture, a ghoul is a demon-like humanoid creature that haunts graveyards. They prey on anyone who walks alone in the graveyard at night. Some say ghouls also dwell in the desert, luring people away to devour them.


From Latin ‘mōnstrum’, meaning ‘an evil omen’. Perhaps the ancient Romans were onto something. Monsters don’t have to have claws and fangs and tentacles to drag us to our deaths. Monsters, to the ancient Romans, were simply bad signs, portents of bad luck that terrified people so much their fears became real. The ancients knew that monsters exist – even if they’re only in our minds.


From Old English ‘wer’ (man) and ‘wulf’ (wolf). An interesting superstition from medieval France states that a person may turn into a werewolf if they slept outside on certain Wednesdays or Fridays during the summer with the full moon shining directly on their face.


From the Ancient Greek δαίμων (‘daemon’), meaning ‘spirit’. The Ancient Greeks considered demons to be both good and evil and it wasn’t until the Christian ear that ‘demon’ became a word associated solely with the forces of darkness.

So, this Halloween, as you carve your Jack-o’-Lanterns, light bonfires, bob for apples, and play games, remember that the roots of Halloween run deep. Some of its oldest traditions and the words associated with them go back to the dawn of time, as we can see through the various spooky celebrations that take place around the world today. Happy Halloween, have fun and make merry but, please, try not to disturb the shadowy ghouls lurking in the dark!

Leave a Comment