An American Editor

January 26, 2011

On Words: Zombie

It has been a while since I wrote about the etymology of a word, so I thought I’d try to turn back to the roots of this blog, at least for this post.

In recent years, there have been a spate of books and movies involving zombies. Have you ever given thought to the origins of the word?

Zombie (also zombi) is of early 19th century West African origin, deriving from nzambi, the Bantu name for a West African python god thought to raise the dead, and zumbi, a good-luck fetish (Kikongo). In voodoo, zombie refers to the snake deity or to a supernatural force that occasionally reanimates corpses.

Zombie also refers to the belief that voodoo magicians have the power to revive corpses and use them as robot-like slaves. It is speculated that real zombies may have been created from the living by the use of drugs, which led to the belief of rising from the dead.

A derivative of zombie is the U.S. slang phrase zombie food. This phrase means either that eating the particular food will make one a zombie or that little intelligence is required to prepare the food (e.g., opening a jar or microwaving a frozen dinner). Needless to say, it is also an observation about the person willing to eat such food.

 The figurative use meaning “dull, slow-witted person” originated in the 1930s. The transferred sense of a stupefied, stupid, or lethargic person first surfaced in American English in 1946. The idea of a zombie being a brain-eating monster arose with Hollywood and can be traced to Bela Lugosi and the 1932 movie White Zombie. Today, it has evolved into an alcohol drink, so one can get zombied.


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