Remember when Halloween was really, truly scary? When a low moan or a slow c-r-r-r-e-a-k could make your stomach do a backflip, when witches wore warts instead of skimpy slit skirts, when the treats were modest and the tricks ominous? Nowadays the holiday is all about wee superheroes and princesses and "unleashing your inner hoochie" (to borrow the Manolo's piquant phrase). Bucking the trend, some businesses are trying to put the horror back in Halloween, according to this New York Times article. With a five-year buffer between us and 9/11, says J. Walker Smith, president of market research firm Yankelovich Partners, advertisers feel it's safe at last to be "more aggressive...about everything they're doing associated with the holiday." Thus: goth windows at Bergdorf Goodman and "the sounds and scares of Halloween" all day Tuesday on an entire channel of Sirius Satellite Radio ("Channel Your Fear").
Nice try, but no exploding cigar. The reason: we've lost our fear of fear itself. Just as Halloween has become more ho-hum and less haunting over the last decade or so, so has our vocabulary of fright.
Take, for example, creepy. When it entered the lexicon in 1831, this adjective referred to "the sensation of the flesh creeping in horror." Today, as Language Log linguist Mark Liberman observes, creepy has crept into the tame zone. Liberman has noticed that teenagers are using expressions like "That's so neat and creepy!"--a development he calls "semantic bleaching." One of his correspondents reports that creepy now means "so coincidental and unlikely that one suspects there are some divine or supernatural forces at work." A subsequent Language Log post charts the parallel domestication of other scare words, among them:
- Terrific. From the Latin terrificus ("causing terror or fear"). In 1667 terrific meant "dreadful" or "frightful." By 1809 it was beginning to take on its current meaning, "really excellent." (Source.)
- Awesome. From "awe," an Old English word that signified "dread mixed with veneration"--the feeling a mere mortal experienced in the presence of the gods, or God. Today it's, like, omigod.
- Uncanny. From Scots "canny," meaning "knowing." Uncanny originally meant "unknowable" or "associated with the supernatural." Nowadays any better-than-average skill is called "uncanny," as in "an uncanny sense of timing."
Continuing in this (jugular) vein, I investigated:
- Weird. From Old English "wyrd," meaning "fate" or "destiny," weird once meant "supernatural in origin," as in the Weird Sisters (aka witches) in Macbeth. Now it's creepy's twin: strange, odd, or even funny-ha-ha.
- Wonderful. It originally meant, yes, "full of wonder," back when "wonder" meant "a cause of astonishment or admiration." Wonderful meant "miraculous," not "super, fantastic, I'll have my people call your people."
- Formidable. From Latin formido--"terror"--formidable meant "causing fear, dread, or apprehension. Current meaning: "pretty darned impressive." (In French, formidable has many more shades of meaning, depending on inflection and subtle shift of emphasis. I remember spending a couple of hours in the language lab repeating "Formidable...formiDABle!...FORmidable" to approximate minute nuances of meaning translating to "swell," "dreadful," "over-the-top," and so on.)
- Tremendous. From Latin tremendus (literally, "to be trembled at"), tremendous in English used to mean "awful, dreadful." By 1812 it had come to mean "Immense" or "extraordinarily great." (Meanwhile, "awfully" was being paired with "good.").
So how do we say "I'm afraid" when all we hear is "I'm afraid...I'm going to have to ask you to work late"? When "phobia" is something everyone has, and is on meds for? When even "terror" is just another political-campaign buzzword?
Spooky, isn't it?
Photo: Von Kale.