(The Blog)

And now for a few words about words (and many other things)...

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Entries in Halloween (1)


When words were scary...

There was a time when the most popular way to scare your closest friends and family was through relatively simple and straightforward stories. Well before Halloween became all about dressing up your dog like a cat or a bumblebee or Ron Paul (depending on the breed), All Hallow’s Eve was a time for sitting around and telling tales of the dead. Ghost stories were also the most traditional way to spend Christmas Eve, particularly in Victorian England (“A Christmas Carol,” anyone?).

But over time, good, old-fashioned ghost stories have lost some of their ability to spook. While many of you reading this might prefer a fireside reading of Edgar Allen Poe, most Americans will be off at Paranormal Activity 3.

Mr. E. A. Poe: A scary dude who knew how to use scary words.But aside from all the additional competition and our ever-shrinking attention spans, it seems that words themselves—certain words that used to chill, frighten, horrify, spook, and plenty of other synonyms for scare—have lost their power to petrify.

For example: creepy. When it first joined the language in 1831, this adjective referred to "the sensation of the flesh creeping in horror." But it no longer creeps out too many people, particularly the members of Generation Text. As University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman observed on his blog, Language Log, teenagers are using the expression “That’s so creepy…” to qualify coincidental or unexpected bits of news, as in "You were there, too? That's so creepy!" or “Isn’t it creepy how she called at the last minute?” In a subsequent post, Liberman charted the similar taming of other formerly scary words, including:

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