January 23, 2018

"How is that a haunting question? Of course they would."

Said Freeman Hunt, reacting to the headline "Neil deGrasse Tyson Has A Haunting Question About Bears,"* blogged here yesterday.

I said, "The word 'haunt' is way overused. I should do a post about that." So this is that post.

The first thing I see is that 14 years ago, in the early months of this blog, I wrote a substantial post about the word "haunted" and the way it is overused.**

Next, I see that the verb "to haunt" did not begin as a powerful, ghost-related word. It simply referred to frequency and habit, such as going to a particular place. The OED has very old quotes — as old as the 13th century — that speak of ships haunting harbors and people haunting taverns.

In the 16th century, there was talk of thoughts, memories, and feelings that frequently occurred and thus "haunted" a person. Shakespeare wrote: "Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world" ("Richard III" 1597). And Shakespeare used the word to speak of the habitual visits of ghosts:
1597 Shakespeare Richard II iii. ii. 154 Some haunted by the ghosts they haue deposed.
1600 Shakespeare Midsummer Night's Dream iii. i. 99 O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted. Pray masters: fly masters: helpe.
Reading the OED makes the word feel much weaker to me. A "haunting question" is nothing more than a question that keeps coming back to you, not necessarily anything spooky. Is it no different from a "nagging question"?

But I see ghosts in "haunting." Are there horses in "nagging"? No, "nag" (the verb) comes from Scandinavia — "nagga" — to gnaw, irritate, grumble. "Nag" the horse comes from Dutch — "negge" —  a small horse. Oh! And I see that in this horse lineage, "nag" was once a slang word for "penis":
1598 J. Marston Scourge of Villanie B2 Hence lewd nags away, Goe read each poast,..Then to Priapus gardens.
1655 Mercurius Fumigosus xxxvi. 284 He by his Eloquence Converted her Gleab into pasture, and put his Nagg to grasse in her Coppice.
1707 in H. Playford Wit & Mirth (new ed.) III. 56 What is this so stiff and warm... 'Tis Ball my Nag he will do you no harm.
Goe read each poast... that's what I always say.

* Freeman Hunt continued, riffing on deGrasse Tyson's tweet, "If Bears were in charge, after they hunted us to near-extinction, I wonder if they’d invent a candy called Gummy Human":
If bears were in charge, they'd all drive huge, gas-guzzling SUVs.

If bears were in charge, ceilings would be higher, manicurists would be in high demand, and outerwear sales would be down. There would be no need for a fat acceptance movement among bears.

If bears were in charge, the fiscal year would begin in the spring and end in the fall.

If bears were in charge, some sports, like football, would be better, but others, like basketball, would be worse.

If bears were in charge, fishing shows would get higher ratings.

If bears were in charge, raw food wouldn't be a special diet.

If bears were in charge, Canada would be a more important country.

If bears were in charge, all-you-can-eat buffets would only be open in summer.

If bears were in charge, bald animals would be considered cuddly.

If bears were in charge, smart people would live in deserts and swamps.

If bears were in charge, gummy people would be berry flavored.

If bears were in charge, yogurt containers would be honey containers.

If bears were in charge, elevators would have higher weight limits.

If bears were in charge, grizzlies would be deplorables.

If bears were in charge, police would have to handle exponentially more maulings.
** Here it is: "Haunted":
I read some of the reader opinions at the link for the novel in the previous post. You always have to wonder, reading those things, whether they are written by friends or relatives of the author (though the book really did sound good as described on the radio).

Ever notice how often a book is called "haunting"? Two out of eight customer reviews at that link called the book "haunting." It seems any time people actually like a book, they are haunted by it. That's rather disturbing. You wouldn't read the book at all if you knew you weren't going to like it. But then you like it and it dogs you in some eerie, scary way.

"Haunt" ought to be a strong word. My favorite use of the word is in the movie Wuthering Heights, when Laurence Olivier says "Haunt me, Cathy!" He doesn't mean he'd like a poignant memory of her to linger. He really means he wants her ghost to haunt him.
...I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form. Drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life. I cannot die without my soul.
That's haunt. I love that movie scene, but let me give you the original Emily Bronte text too:
"Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!"
The screenplay stayed pretty close to the original. Replacing "Oh, God! it is unutterable!" was the sheer presence of Laurence Olivier. "Dark alone" replaced "abyss," which they couldn't trust people to understand. "I can not live without my life!"--that's great movie-talk, straight out of the original. The second "I cannot live" in the original became "I cannot die" in the screenplay. Interesting! Instead of parallelism and repetition, the movie has Cathy's death create a dilemma: "I cannot live" and "I cannot die." That's quite good. (Quality screenwriting by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht, and (uncredited) John Huston.)

But I know it's futile to inform the world that they ought to preserve the strength of the word "haunt." The sad thing about taking a strong word and using it as an ordinary word is that as an ordinary word it becomes a cliché, so it really has lost its entire reason for being. A whole category of words that have had their strong meaning sucked out of them by overuse consists of words that express approval: grand, great, magnificent, marvelous, awesome. A subcategory consists of words that originally suggested unreality: fantastic, incredible, unreal, fabulous. Fortunately, there are so many of these words of praise in English, that we can fend off the cliché problem by periodically switching to a new one. I remember when no one used "awesome," then it got started, then it got overused, and then it became generally recognized that it was idiotic to say it, even as a joke. So maybe it will lie fallow for a long time and become reusable. There's no chance of "haunting" going through that process though, because though it is overused, it's certainly not overused the way "awesome" was. It's got to be quite conspicuous before people become embarrassed. On the other hand, since "haunting" is overused by people who seem to want to appear elegant and educated, maybe there is some hope that embarrassment will set in more easily.


richlb said...

Speaking of "haunting", check out the film A Ghost Story on Amazon Prime. It's about as polarizing of a film as you will see this year, more so than Blade Runner 2049 or The Last Jedi. It's about a haunting of sorts. It's not a horror film like Insidious or its many knockoffs. If you make it through the halfway point you will love it. If you turn it off before then, you hate it with a passion.

madAsHell said...

"nag" was once a slang word for "penis"

I entirely understand the sentiment.

rhhardin said...

A ghost sees you not seeing it when it is always there with no actual dated history.

The opening pages of Derrida's _Specters of Marx_ would be pleasing to Althouse. Someday she'll read one of my suggestions and see Derrida is doing just what she wants to be doing. In this case worrying about what haunting is.

Suzy said...

A favorite book/movie line of mine that uses the word "haunt." This line in turn, haunts me.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Fritz said...

A more accurate characterization would would be a stupid question.

tim in vermont said...

Blade Runner 2049 was Ok if you skip to the credits with five minutes to go.

wild chicken said...

Is there a downloadable unabridged OED? The thing I got for my kindle isa joke and can't define some of the old victorian terms Trollope uses in his novels.

Some "OED"!

robother said...

When I was 20, I started taking long backpacking trips into the Beartooth Mountains, which has both black and grizzly bears. The first night in a tent in the back country was always sleepless, haunted, every sound in the forest an imagined grizzly.

Josephbleau said...

He by his Eloquence Converted her Gleab into pasture, and put"his Nagg to grasse in her Coppice." "His horse to feed in her woodlot." An allegorical double entendre of a pastoral scene of horse care and feeding vs a funny word for penis?

tim in vermont said...

Just read that Freeman Hunt rant. Damn, that’s some good stuff.

StephenFearby said...

"If bears were in charge, smart people would live in deserts and swamps."

Evoking, "If Clinton were elected, smart people would not have been able to read Andrew McCarthy's latest damning indictment on NRO."

New FBI texts highlight a motive to conceal the president’s involvement.

"...All cleaned up: no indictment, meaning no prosecution, meaning no disclosure of Clinton–Obama emails. It all worked like a charm . . . except the part where Mrs. Clinton wins the presidency and the problem is never spoken of again."


robother said...

"What is this so stiff and warm... 'Tis Ball my Nag he will do you no harm."

He nicknamed his penis after the Lollard priest, who stirred up peasant revolt with, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?"

Joanne Jacobs said...

"Hauntology" -- Derrida combined "haunt" with "ontology" -- is apparently a thing in critical theory. (I just heard about it yesterday.)
Wikipedia: "The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive."

I think that translates as, to quote Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

bwebster said...

After this tweet came out, someone (on Twitter) retweeted it, saying (as best I can remember), "I'd love an app that automatically puts the text *takes a big bong hit* in front of any Tyson tweet."

Such as:
*takes a big bong hit*

"If Bears were in charge, after they hunted us to near-extinction, I wonder if they’d invent a candy called Gummy Humans."

Works remarkably well. ..bruce..

traditionalguy said...

If Scots-Irish scouts were in charge , there would be more Bear Flag Rebellions.

bagoh20 said...

If bears were in charge, Man-Bear-Pig would not be rich. Bears are too smart to fall for that shit.

Todd Galle said...

Well, I've worked at historic sites and museums since 1986, and I can guarantee you from my experience, there are hauntings and spooks and such. I think around 85% of my co-workers over the years would agree, including NPS Historical Interpretive Park Rangers. My present historic site has been spectre free for me, but others have trouble with a particular building, which is curious, as it is not particularly historic, being built 150 years or so after the originals.

Steve said...

In the South, "haints" is the pronunciation of "haunts", meaning unpleasant spirits. One way to keep them out of your house is to paint your porch ceiling light blue. That also helps keep spiders away, to which I can testify having painted my porch ceilings light blue.

Hunter said...

Your last paragraph raises an important issue.

After 3 or (forbid!) 7 more years of Trump as president —will any words be left with forceful meaning?

The man is laying waste to superlatives!

Anonymous said...

"Goe read each poast"? Were there blogs in the Elizabethan era?!?

David said...

"On the other hand, since "haunting" is overused by people who seem to want to appear elegant and educated, maybe there is some hope that embarrassment will set in more easily."

"Some" hope maybe but not very much. These people do not embarrass easily.

Bad Lieutenant said...

Steve said...
In the South, "haints" is the pronunciation of "haunts", meaning unpleasant spirits.

You Southern barbarians are not fit to live. Any civilized person knows that it's "hisnts."

Glen Filthie said...

Gummy humans? We invented them ourselves. When I was a kid there were baby shaped black licorice flavoured candies called “nigger babies”. I also wonder about “ju-jubes”. Were they actually called jew-jubes? Unlike nowadays, back then some things actually WERE racist.

tim in vermont said...

After 3 or (forbid!) 7 more years of Trump as president —will any words be left with forceful meaning?

The man is laying waste to superlatives!

Still not tired of the winning.

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Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Favorite haunts" sounds pretty neutral.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Any bets on how many comments the "Haunting" post will garner?

Infinite Monkeys said...


"You were so cool, you could have put out Vietnam."

Freeman Hunt said...

If bears were in charge, they would also get witch doctor spam.