There is a current television series which looks at the trials and tribulations of a ghost, werewolf, and vampire living together. All three of these—ghosts, werewolves, and vampires—have been, and continue to be, the subject of many movies, television programs, and novels. The etymology of these words is explored below.
The word “ghost” comes from the Proto-Indo-European stem “*gheis-” meaning “to be exited, amazed, frightened” which became “*ghoizdoz” in Proto-Germanic and then “gast” in Old English. The Old English “gast” means “soul, spirit, breath; good or bad spirit, angel, demon.”
Now the next question is: How did “gast” become “ghost”? The blame for the strange spelling goes to the printer William Caxton in the fifteenth century. Caxton was influenced by the Flemish and Middle Dutch word “gheest” and so he used the initial “gh” instead of “g.”
Ghosts in English and American mythology are often associated with places and thus we have concepts such as haunted houses, churches, castles, bars, mines, and other places which are described and explored in novels and current reality television programs.
Shown above is an 1804 engraving showing a ghost.
There are, of course, some people who want to talk to the dead. Technically, contacting a ghost is called necromancy. In popular terminology, a person who talks to ghosts is called a medium or spirit medium.
With regard to etymology, “necromancy” entered into English about 1300 as “nygromauncy” meaning “divination by communication with the dead” which came from the Old French “nigromancie” which meant “magic, witchcraft, sorcery” which in turn came from the Medieval Latin “nigromantia” referring to “divination from an exhumed corpse.” The modern spelling, “necromancy,” came about in the mid-sixteenth century.
The word “vampire” came into English from the French “vampire” or from the German “vampir” which appears to have come from the Hungarian “vampir” which comes from the Old Church Slavonic “opiri.” While the word “vampire” is relatively recent in English and the concept of the vampire was popularized in nineteenth century novels, stories about night-walking, blood-gorged, plague-spreading undead corpses can be traced back in England to 1196.
The classic vampire is, of course, Dracula, the vampire in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Dracula was the surname of Prince Vlad II of Wallachia who died in 1476. In Romanian, “Dracula” means “son of Dracul” and “dracul” means “the dragon.” Vlad’s father, who was also named Vlad, took the name about 1431 when he joined the Order of the Dragon which had been founded to defend Christianity from the Turks and heretics.
Shown above is Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
As an aside, a female vampire is a lamia, which comes from the Greek “lamia” which meant swallower.
The werewolf is a shape-shifter who has the power to turn into a wolf. The word “werewolf” comes from the Old English “werewolf” which is composed of “wer” meaning “man” and “wulf” meaning “wolf.”
Another term for werewolf is lycanthrope which is from the Greek “lykos” meaning “wolf” and “anthrōpos” meaning “man.” The Greek geographer, historian, and world traveler Herodotus describes lycanthropes in a land northeast of Scythia where everyone became a wolf for several days every year.
Lycanthropy refers to the ability to transform oneself into a wolf. Lycanthropy is first recorded in English in Reginald Scot’s 1584 work Discoverie of Witchcraft in which he argues that werewolves are not real and that lycanthropy is a disease rather than a transformation.
The month of October, by the way, is considered to be the Month of the Werewolf.