This week’s “On Language” column by the jovial and often clueless William Safire focuses mainly on the word bogeyman, alias boogeyman. Safire claims there’s a transition from the latter to the former in progress; I think the latter is a colloquial/childish version of the former, which has always predominated in formal contexts. A section of the tax code (cited by Safire) is a bogeyman; the thing that’s gonna getcha if you don’t watch out is a boogeyman. Furthermore, I seriously doubt his hypothesis that political correctness is involved; I certainly never associated the word with the rather obscure racial slur boogie, and I doubt many people do, though (as always) I’m willing to be corrected.
But what really surprised me was his use of the word scarifying in this context:

It’s apparent that the boogieman, bogeyman and (in the U.S. South) boogerman or buggabear is a monster, evil spirit, hobgoblin or chimera racing through our language, used by nefarious alarmists to frighten small children and innocent voters. He is known to Germans as Boggelmann, to the Irish as bocan, to the Scottish as boggart and to Icelanders as the linguistically related puki. Earliest citation I can find is in Old French, around 1200, as Bugibu, and in the Middle Ages the dark figure’s name became synonymous with the Devil, one of whose names was Old Bogey. There could be a connection with the scarifying ”Boo!

While the verb scarify as a synonym for scare is in most dictionaries, it is usually rejected by exactly Safire’s sort of change-resistant language “maven,” since the older verb scarify means ‘to make shallow cuts in (the skin); to break up the surface of (topsoil or pavement); to distress deeply, as with severe criticism; lacerate,’ and hidebound prescriptivists are fond of announcing that there’s no scare in scarify. Dollars to doughnuts he writes a shamefaced correction in a week or two, saying the Gotcha Gang has caught him out in his “misuse” and he’ll never do it again.
One odd thing is that the piece ends (after a brief history of the outdated slang word broad) with a stray close quote:

No matter how you shuffle this deck, the slang etymology of broad has to do with a piece of paper that gets into mischief. In today’s slang, a broad—as Frank Sinatra liked to characterize the fair sex, now treated more fairly—is nicer than a slut but is not as trustworthy as a dame or as companionable as a babe.”

You’d think it would have been caught and omitted from the online version, but no, there it is. Another sample of Bad Proofreading in Our Time(s).


  1. John Kozak says

    With no particular expertise, I’d always assumed that “boogeyman” was a US form, and “bogeyman” the UK strain (but your post suggests this is over-simple). There are the kiddie terms for nasal mucus “bogey” (UK) and “booger” (US) which suggest this might be regular.

  2. By the 1940’s, as a verb, to boogie was synonymous with ”to cut a rug,”
    *exeunt, weakened by howling laughter*

  3. I’d always assumed that “bogeyman” or “boogeyman” was the juvenile form of “bogey”, a specter or haunt. As I always saw it (even as a kid, I might add) “bogey” was a scary whatzis, not something you should be really afraid of (and in New York, there were always things to be really scared of), but something like a ghost or spriggin–entertaining to be scared of at Halloween. “Bogeyman” was the goofy nursery form, used to take any remaining edge of fright off of an already derascinated use. Finally, “boogeyman” was used by idiots who didn’t know any better in the same context as “bogeyman”. Sort of like “nuculer”, it always had a class/education connotation for me. Which is something I haven’t thought of in years, and now strikes me as exceedingly strange.

  4. Spriggin??

  5. For me, boogey is oral and childish and bogey is written and slightly pedantic. I’ve seen boogeyman used as a deliberate pun to describe an annoying person who said “Let’s boogie!” a lot.
    I vaguely remember that bogey derives from Bulgar / bogomil — heretics of the Middle ages. Bulgar is probably also the root of “Volga” (formerly called the Itil). Bulgar in Turkish may have meant something like “mixed, bastard, half-breed” (Boodberg). Most Turko-Mongol ethnonyms originally named ad hoc political-military units (usually coalitions), more than kin groups or dialect groups, though a durable Turko-Mongol ethnos would develop a dialect and kinship system.
    Treat as urban legend, I don’t have time to look anything up. “A friend of a guy who works with my brother ….”

  6. Definitely urban legend, but so much more entertaining than the hook on the door handle!

  7. I like this sprigging! How gay it were!

  8. I happened to see this page in the English Dialect Atlas the other day, and going from memory, the forms bogeyman, boggart, and black man, among others, all occurred (among older farm labourers in c. 1950, that is), but I noticed not boogeyman, which I think of as a common modern form in US and Australia.

  9. My father mentioned once how horrified an elderly aunt, who hailed from Dixie, was to his use of the term “bugger,” used innocently in the way some use the term “sucker” – a humorous way of saying “thing” or “being.” She exlained that bugger was short for buggerer, i.e. a sodomite. (My edition of Webster’s Collegiate gives that as the first definition; it traces the origin to ME bougre, heretic, sodomite, fr. MF, fr. ML Bulgaris, lit. Bulgarian. We must remember that the Bogomils/Albigensians with the archetypal herretics, and that sexually deviant behavior with identified both with heresy and with witchcraft.) I’m wondering, then, if there might be another level of etymology (real or imputed) to booger/boogieman? People in Victorian times and before were sometimes quite explicit in their attempts to silence children into obedience. It seems plausible that southern whites might have scared their children with threats of a big black man with sinister sexual intent…which could lead us into the whole fraught zone of American racial/sexual mythologies. Maybe best to let sleeping dogs lie…

  10. Sorry for sloppy editing that goes way beyond an errant close-quote! Read: “…the Bogomils/Albigensians WERE the archetypal heretics, and that sexually deviant behavior WAS identified both…”

  11. Seems similar to the transition from the traditional spelling “noddle” (in “to use one’s noddle”) to the more phonetic “noodle.”

  12. xiaolongnu says

    For what it’s worth, the term in our house, in the interests of gender equality, was always “persons of the boogie persuasion” (who we were careful to lock out every night). I’m not sure that political correctness goes with linguistic correctness in this case.

  13. Every tourist guide to South Sulawesi will tell you that ‘Bogeyman’ comes from Bugis, because they were so fearsome and piratical. I always thought this sounded like a crock, but actually looking at the OED it doesn’t seem so farfetched (the first reference for the ‘goblin’ type meaning is 1857 S. OSBORN Quedah ii. 17 Malay pirates..those bogies of the Archipelago.)
    I should add though, that I have always found Bugis people to be perfectly honourable, and certainly they have never hidden under my bed with the intention of frightening me.

  14. Thomas Dent says

    In the English I speak, “scarify” = “lacerate” has a short a like “clarify”, whereas “scarify” as an infantile synonym for “scare”, and “scarifying” as a synonym for “scary”, have a long diphthong (?) like wear.
    The fact that they are written the same is, then, a coincidence. The issue or problem of a word changing or evolving its meaning does not arise. Two words with two meanings. Spoken, it’s unambiguous, while the written word depends on context.
    This is about as problematic as “lead”, as in “John took the lead”. Was he showing initiative or stealing metal off a church roof?
    Naturally, it’s bad style to use a homograph (heteronym?) if the intended pronunciation and meaning are not clear. I think Safire’s safe. It’s also bad style to use an unnecessarily long or infantile word when a shorter one would do, so Safire flunkifies on that count – unless you think “scarifying” carries a subtle shade of meaning that “scary” doesn’t.

  15. The two words have identical pronunciations in Merriam-Webster’s (as a side issue, even if they didn’t they’d be identical for those who, like me, have the same vowel in clarify and wear), so it’s not as clear-cut as your “lead” example. But the main point is that the second scarify is not considered a proper word by Safire’s ilk; it’s not even in the original OED, and the new edition labels it “slang (orig. dial).” I repeat, I expect a retraction from Safire. Me, I don’t use the word because (as you say) there’s no point using a longer variant of a perfectly good short word (not to mention the possible confusion), but I have no objection to people’s using it if it’s part of their vocabulary; Safire (if he’s consistent) should object.

  16. Thomas Dent says

    Yet another reason why speaking with an American accent is so very wrong (however much historical justification you might have for it): you lose the distinction between “Honey, I scarified the soil!” and “Honey, I scarified the kids!”.
    (Of course this side the Atlantic it would be “Darling”…)
    Perhaps Safire was trying to adjust his vocabulary to the level of the small children he was thinking about frightening.

  17. Richard is Scarry.

  18. In Safire’s book “In Love With Norma Loquendi” he repeats a column from the turn of the 80’s – 90’s where he used “scarify” to mean “scare”, and various witty corrections he got back in the mail. One of which notes the rarely-used homophone noted above.
    I am inclined to think this use is an intentional allusion to the earlier column, for his fans. Of which I am one. He used his language column pretty generously to quote readers who bothered to send letters, and to follow their lead, back before we had blogs or email for the masses. The op-ed stuff is just loopy, and nasty too, but the language columns are gentle and welcoming, very nice on a Sunday morning (or in the w.c. later in the week).

  19. Ah, thank you — that makes sense. I agree that his language columns are much nicer than his op-eds!

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