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Hello,

This week I’m taking a brief look at a word the Germans gave us – poltergeist (pronunciation here). It’s compounded from two sources – poltern, the German verb to knock and geist which means spirit.

Thanks to horror movies galore you’re probably familiar with poltergeists moving objects, odd odours, and strange noises – quite literally things that go bump in the night, often targeting one particular living person or place. The idea is common across many cultures and are often explained by gusts of wind, earth tremors, and animal pests.

Reports of poltergeist activities date back to the 1500s but the word only entered English in 1838, probably aided by the upsurge in interest in all things occult thanks to the spiritualist movement. In German the term translates as a “rumble ghost”.

The word poltergeist appears regularly in the many writing of Martin Luther who famously started the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church in Europe. He may even have coined the word.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will be confused to hear that according to the Online Etymology Dictionary a poltergeist would be a boggart in Northern English dialect. I’m fairly sure a prank-playing poltergeist like Peeves is pretty different to the shape-changing boggart featured in the stories. They might even find it faintly ridukulus (pun intended).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Keep a close eye out for the poltergeists,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

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Hello,

This week I am delving into the murky word depths of occult and oculist to see if they’re linked.

I knew that occult described supernatural things and practices, but I didn’t realise it could be used as a verb to describe the concealment of something e.g. the private couple occulted their home from view with a large hedge. This would tie in with occult practice as being a way to “draw back the veil” between worlds – if you believe such things can be done (I don’t).

A black cat crossed my path in France one day

A black cat crossed my path in France one day

It can also be used in a medical sense to refer to barely detectable symptoms and diseases that are hard to prove by purely medical means. Although I would guess that any doctor using the term to a patient will have to stress the cure won’t be produced from within a black top hat.

Occult comes from the Latin verb occulere – a joining of ob (in the way – think of obstruct and obfuscate) and celare (to conceal – perhaps in a cellar?). It dates from the 1500s.

Oculist was a term I only encountered recently and it is an old-fashioned word for ophthalmologist, optometrist or as they are more commonly known in Ireland, optician. As a spectacle wearer myself I am a fan of their work but I’ve never seen a hint of the occult in their careful examinations of my eyesight.

The missing letter c is at the heart of this confusion of words. Oculist comes, via French,  from the Latin for eye – oculus. Oculist entered English at around the same time as occult (or indeed occultist) so the close spelling must have been confusing readers for 500 years now, especially if their eyesight was poor.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

 

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