The other day as I was teaching my students some SAT words, the word ‘apparition’ came up. Since Halloween is just around the corner, I’m going to talk about ghosts. We have an inordinate amount of words for ‘ghost’ considering only about half of our population believes in them. How do I know this? It was in a Reader’s Digest my mom sent me. 47% of Americans believe in ghosts. Other English speaking countries: Canada 43%, Australia 39%, India 37%, UK 37%, South Africa 17%.
So, how many words for ‘ghost’ do we have? Besides ‘ghost’ and ‘apparition’ there are: spook, haunt, poltergeist, phantom, phantasm, shade, spirit, specter, ghoul, and banshee (granted, this is a specific type). Why should this be? I don’t know, but I love it. I can’t get over how incredibly rich English is. When I want to say something I can say it any number of ways depending on my mood or slight variances in meaning. ‘Ghoul’ has a very different connotation than ‘spirit,’ for example.
If we extend the word search to any supernatural or mythical being we get words like: imp, demon, devil, angel, cherub, seraph, pixie, gnome, ogre, brownie, leprechaun, genie (or jinn), fairy, sprite, elf, incubus, succubus, troll, gremlin, werewolf, vampire, mermaid (or merman), goblin, hobgoblin, dwarf, giant, unicorn, shapeshifter. And that’s not including all the things from Greek mythology like harpy, siren, griffin, Cerberus, chimera, hydra, nymph, centaur, satyr, etc.
It reminds me of the time I tried describing a fairy to my students here. There’s no translation and after I was done and had drawn a picture, they said, “oh, like an angel.” I guess. It also reminds me of why English has all these words while other languages don’t. It reflects our heterogeneous society. These words come to us from Arabic, Irish, Norse, etc. traditions that we have read in English translation or adopted into our own literature. Because Turkmen have not been exposed to other cultures or their literature and mythology, they don’t know these words or have a concept of these beings.
How wonderful is it that writers like J.K. Rowling have a vast array of mythologies to cull from in order to create a world that has ghosts, phoenixes, and house elves? Our language and our literature is enriched by welcoming diverse cultures into our fold.