Boo!

By Warner, Marina | Natural History, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Boo!


Warner, Marina, Natural History


It was when my young teenage son and his friends started choosing horror films as a treat that I began to explore ideas about the pleasures and uses of fear. They'd lie down in a huddle in front of the video player, shrieking and squealing blissfully as they covered their eyes. Reaching out to embrace the objects of terror-and thus tame them-they were adopting a widespread human defense that can be seen in full force at Halloween.

I once arrived at the San Francisco airport on October 31 to find one ticket clerk wearing an ax through his bleeding head, while another, in full ghoul makeup, began asking me the usual security questions. Halloween guising involves conjuring objects of horror and dread, the more terrible the better. Children won't be dressing up for Halloween this year as good, polite graduates of Hogwarts, the school of magic in the popular children's books about apprentice wizard Harry Potter. Rather, they'll be playacting monsters, vampires, witches, and warlocks-creatures on the side of Harry's implacable enemy, the evil Lord Voldemort.

The ancient, seemingly instinctive game of peekaboo brings many infants their first experience of scary pleasures: the sudden appearance of a mother's eyes from behind her fingers will make a small baby gurgle with surprise. From this gentle exchange, it's a short step to the much rougher game of Boo!, which children love to play, jumping out of a hiding place to give someone a fright. (Startling a predator by springing out unexpectedly is also one of the most effective protective devices in nature; a butterfly's suddenly opening its wings to flash a pair of boggling painted eyes exemplifies nature's use in earnest of the Boo! effect.) Use of this bilabial plosive, as the abrupt Boo! sound is

known in phonetics, goes back to at least 1420 in English and has been heard in children's games in places as different as the Middle East and North America. The sound may be related etymologically to the Sanskrit bhu, the divine command of being and generation. As the linguist J. R. Firth wittily put it, "God created the world by saying bhu."

Many words for Halloween-type specters are based on this sound: boogie, bogy, boggle-bo, bogeyman; in northern England, boggart; in Scotland, booman; bugaboo in the Isle of Man; a bucca in Cornwall, a buggane in Wales; similarly in Russia, buca; boogerman in the southern United States; in Newfoundland, boo-bagger and bully-boo. …

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