Why Do Ghosts Always Say “Boo”?

They aren't jeering at you.

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You’re taking your daily jaunt around the cul-de-sac one day and decide to be adventurous. There are two alternative options to your standard route: You could take a hike along the brook—or take a stroll through the abandoned slaughterhouse down the street. Since you have a hankering for beef jerky, you opt for the slaughterhouse. One thing leads to another, and you encounter the ghost of a disgruntled meatpacker. (Don’t believe in ghosts, eh? These chilling true ghost stories will convince you otherwise.)

“Boo!” remarks Jurgis, the aforementioned meatpacking ghost. You pause in fear, but also curiosity. “Boo?” you query. That’s a nonsense word. Is he just falling short of saying “boot?” Is Jurgis mad because he’s a legless ghost who can’t wear boots? Why is that every phantasm seems to say the same canned catchphrase?

The answer is multifaceted. Boo, or some variation of the exclamation, has been in the human vernacular for nearly five centuries, dating back to its first recorded usage in the play Smyth Which Forged Hym a New Dame, when the eponymous blacksmith remarks “Speke now, let me se/and say ones bo!”  Bo or Bu was used as a sort of pronouncement of one’s presence and the blacksmith is basically pleading with the other character to say something, anything.

But ghosts are seemingly not simply announcing their presence. They’ve been spewing this spectral speak for under two centuries now, but the purpose is generally a spooky one. One of the first notable instances of boo being used by a ghost was in 1863 when a script from the famed Punch and Judy puppet show included a ghost exclaiming “Boo-o-o-oh!” to one of the main characters.

In Scottish culture, the exclamation has possessed a frightening connotation dating back to the 18th century. In 1738, Gilbert Crokatt wrote in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that “Boo is a Word that’s used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.” (This school just recently caught a ghost on camera—do you believe the footage?) Another set of terms endemic to the British Isles around this time were bogey/bogeyman/boggart all terms used to denote a devil/specter/ghost/evil being.

See, ghosts aren’t trying to harm you. They’re just giving you a history lesson in proper interjection! And if you think you’re being haunted by ghosts, science has a pretty good explanation why.

[Source: Mental Floss]

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