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Words with surprisingly cheeky origins

On Halloween the spirits of the dead are said to walk with the living on earth. Believe it or not, or about spirits in general, you might want to know what you’re getting yourself into when you hear a South Carolina native mention a plat-eye or a Maine resident warns you Swogons. Familiarize yourself with these US regional slang terms for familiar spirits from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. Skookum

Referring to a ghost, demon, or spirit, Skookum is primarily a northwestern term and comes from a language of the Chinook Indians in the Pacific Northwest. In the northwest and in Alaska Skookum as an adjective means strong, mighty or good, while a Skookum house is a prison and a Skookum Chuck is a turbulent water channel.

2. Tommyknocker

More than just a Stephen King novel Tommyknocker has been used in the West since at least the early 20th century to refer to a spirit that lives in a mine. It also refers to the knocking noises the mind is supposed to make. This spirit sense comes from the English dialect word Tommyknocker meaning a “hammer used to break ore.”


3. Spooky

In the states of South and South Midland a follow or hant is a spirit or a soul. The earliest definitions of haunted weren’t spooky at all: according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 13th century as a way of habitually practicing or visiting a place. Around 1576 it gained the figurative meaning of memories, worries, feelings, thoughts, etc., which are often distracting. In 1597 the term wandered into the supernatural. From Richard III: “Some are haunted by the spirits that set them down.” Almost 300 years later, it finally referred to a ghost.

4. and 5. Hot Hant or Hot Steam

You might come across one hot handle or hot steam in the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Alabama. In Ben Burman’s 1938 book, Blow for a landing, hot hants are hot because “they went to hell.” in the Kill a mockingbird, one hot steam is described as “someone who cannot get to heaven, just wallows on lonely streets, and if you walk through him, when you die, you will be one too.”

6. Bugaboo

This spooky term in South and South Midland could also refer to an imaginary monster or the devil. The OED, which has been in use since at least 1710, says the word could have come from the now obscure meaning of error, an imaginary evil spirit (the insect meaning came later) and could also be influenced by Boo. Also Boogerboo and man.

7. Booger

Be careful if someone from the states of South or South Midland says you have one Booger– They could mean something more terrifying than a piece of snot. The word originated in the 1750s and, according to the OED, meant a despicable man. In the 1820s, it signified a menacing supernatural creature (and dried nasal mucus in 1891).

8. Duppy

In Alabama and Louisiana, you could say duppy for mind. According to DARE, the word comes from Bube, a Bantu language in West Africa. OED’s earliest quotation in English is from the 1774 book by British historian Edward Long The history of Jamaica (“Those of deceased friends are duppies”), while DARE’s from a 1919 edition of the Journal of American Folklore: “… the ghost story, the story based on the belief in” Hants “or” Bugies “or” Duppies “.”

9. Hide

Also high back and almost afterwardsthis term refers to a ghost or imaginary creature that is always hiding behind an object. Henry Tryon’s 1939 book Terrifying animals describes the hiding place as a 6 foot “highly dangerous animal” with “grizzly-like claws”. Conveniently, it is “never known to attack a drunk”. After Vance Randolphs 1951 We Always Lie to Strangers: Great Stories from the Ozarks, the monster is “a lizard the size of a bull” who “lurks in the tracks at night”.

10. Catawampus

As an imaginary monster or hobgoblin in the states of South and South Midland, the word also means violent, ruthless and destructive, according to the OED, and emerged as a humorous formation, the first part of which may have been influenced Katamount, a cougar or cougar.

11. Swogon

That Maine term for a ghost could come from it Swogon swamp as quoted in Holman Day’s Up in Maine: “Because even in these days PI trembles / In the great swamp swogon of the Brassua Lake. / When the long night flashes and babbles, / And screams for the souls of the trembling crew.” One more word from Maine Swogun (also written Swagin, swaganand other variations) refers to bean soup.

12. God

In Hawaii one akua is a god, spirit, or supernatural being. The OED has actionwhat it says is a Polynesian word with the same meaning.

13. Stepney

This term is used among Gullah speakers on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. It could mean hunger or hard times, and it can also be personified as an evil spirit. However, it is not clear where the word comes from.

14. Plat-Eye

Be careful Plat eyes when walking around South Carolina at night. These hobgoblins, or malevolent spirits, are said to emerge from graves. Platt-Eye foray refers to the time of night they are supposed to roam.

15. Go-Devil

Another term from South Carolina, a Go-Devil is an evil spirit or someone who looks like one. The term also refers to various machinery and equipment used in agriculture, forestry, the oil industry, and logging.


While commonly known as the witch, in the southeast a witch or Witch spirit could also refer to the evil spirit of a dead person. This ghost is said to cause nightmares by “riding” the hapless dreamer. Hag-riddenmeans, according to the OED, to be plagued by nightmares or suppressed in the head.


In addition to being an excellent name for a death metal band, Raw head and blood bones is a South and South Midland term for a ghost or hobgoblin. It’s an old term: DARE’s earliest quotation in American English is from 1637, while according to the OED in British English it is 1566. The Raw head Part is terrifying and “usually imagined to have a head in the shape of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin” while Blood bones is sometimes described as a fool lurking in ponds “waiting for children to drown”.

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