English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The spooky season

Q: I am wondering what information you can share on the origins of “Spooky Season” to describe the lead-up to Halloween. All of a sudden the term seems to be everywhere.

A: The phrase “spooky season” showed up in the early 1900s and reappeared every ten or fifteen years until it began increasing in popularity at the end of the 20th century.

The earliest example we’ve found uses the expression to mean a time in autumn in which unexplained things are said to be happening. In this passage, a British journal devoted to the paranormal cites reports in a London tabloid of mysterious events:

“The ‘spooky’ season has now overflowed into the ‘Daily Graphic,’ which has several times lately published testimony to happenings which may be explained as coincidence—if anyone wishes to do so in defiance of all laws of probability” (from Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult, and Mystical Research, Sept. 16, 1905).

The first written example we’ve found that clearly uses the phrase to mean the Halloween season is from an Illinois newspaper article about a crackdown on rowdy trick-or-treaters:

“The spooky season of the year is now at hand, when ‘the mystic moon is chill, and the spooks and phantoms wander out to do their magic will.’ But the 31st night of October does not bring such an abundance of pleasure to the heart of the mischief-makers as it did in ‘ye aulden tyme.’ With the increase of the police forces, city marshals and watchmen the blessed night has lost most of its significance” (Franklin Reporter, Franklin Grove, Oct. 23, 1913).

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the usage increased sharply in the late 1990s and continued rising in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “October marks the start of myriad unofficial seasons: spooky season, pumpkin spice season, cuffing season, cozy season, hoodie season and, of course, decorative gourd season. (Or ‘szn,’ for those inclined to abbreviate.)”

Interestingly, some people have complained about the expression because one of the meanings of the noun “spook” (source of the adjective “spooky”) is an offensive term for a Black person. But this racist sense didn’t show up in English until nearly a century and a half after “spook” first appeared in its ghostly sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says English borrowed “spook” at the beginning of the 19th century from terms for “ghost” in Dutch (spook) and German (spuk). In English, the term meant “a spectre, apparition, ghost.” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest English example, which we’ve expanded:

“If any wun you heart shool plunder / Mine horses I’ll to Vaggon yoke, / Und chase him quickly; — by mine dunder / I fly so swift as any spook” (from The Massachusetts Spy, July 15, 1801).

The OED says two other meanings of “spook” appeared in the mid-20th century: (1) “An undercover agent; a spy” and (2) “A derogatory term for a black person.”

This is Oxford’s earliest spying example: “ ‘Spotter.’ (One who spys upon employees.) … Silent eye, spook, spotter.” From The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by  Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark.

And this is the earliest pejorative example: “Spook (n), Frightened negro.” From Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary (1945), edited by Lou Shelly.

So is “spook” a no-no now? The racial sense is offensive, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with using it for a ghost or a spy. Similarly, “spade” in its racist sense is offensive, but there’s no reason to avoid the word for garden implements or playing cards. The pejorative sense of “spade” showed up 1,200 years after the word for the tool and 330 years after the word for the card suit.

Linguists have a term for the ability of a word like “spook” or “spade” to have multiple meanings: “polysemy,” which ultimately comes from the ancient Greek πολύσημος (having many senses), made up of the combining form πολυ- (poly-, many) and the noun σῆμα (sema, sign or mark).

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