An American Editor

April 16, 2010

On Words: Bogeyman

I don’t recall what I was reading, I think it was a newspaper article, but suddenly I was faced with a word I hadn’t seen or heard in quite a number of years: bogeyman.

I’ve never given the word much thought; I’ve always subconsciously thought I understood what it meant — after all, how many times does a child need to be told to beware the bogeyman before the child understands that bogeyman (also spelled boogeyman) doesn’t mean a treat? But the recent reading of the word (and if I had to venture a guess, I’d say I read it in a political commentary) made me wonder about the word. So here goes a short exploration of bogeyman.

Starting with the dictionary definition, a bogeyman (n.) is a “terrifying specter; a hobgoblin” (American Heritage Dictionary 4e). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11e gives a more child-oriented definition: “1: a monstrous imaginary figure used in threatening children 2: a terrifying or dreaded person or thing.”

Bogey was the name for a mischevous spirit and was first recorded as a proper name for the devil, who is sometimes referred to as Colonel Bogey. The origin appears to be unknown but the word seems to be related to the 16th century’s bogle, which meant ghost or phantom.

It appeared in 1836 in Bogey the Devil and in a popular song of 189os entitled “The Bogey Man,” which was a reference to a golf game. In 1890, Dr. Thomas Browne was playing against Major Wellman, the match being against the “ground score,” which was the name given to the scratch value of each hole. The system of playing against the “ground score” was new to Major Wellman, and he exclaimed, thinking of the popular song of the moment, “The Bogey Man,” that his mysterious and well-nigh invincible opponent was a regular “bogey-man.”

Bogeyman is likely related to the Scottish bogill, although there is also some claim that it is derived from the English word boggart, a shapeshifting creature, often black and hairy, that hides under your bed or in your closet until after sundown.

Regardless of its origins, bogeyman has become a part of the everyday lexicon, likely as a result of its use to threaten children. If you have any more information to add to the etymology of bogeyman, please do so. Sources seem to be scarce.

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