On Halloween, witches and werewolves, ghosts and ghouls, and demons and devils stalk the streets for tricks or treats. But the real tricks and treats—at least for the horror-loving word nerds among us—might just be the strange and far-flung origins of these monster names.
The word witch flies in from Old English, refers to a male practitioner of sorcery and magic—wicca, also the source of the neopagan religion of the same name. Wicca is derived from wiccian, "to practice witchcraft." Over the centuries, witch's masculine applications melted away, thanks in no small part to the historical persecution of many women believed to be witches.
Werewolves, we know, are men that turn into wolves—and that's exactly what the word means. Were comes from an Old English word for man and is distantly related to the same Latin vir (man) which gives us words like virile and virtue. It's not only wolves that could wear were. Some have told tales of werebears, weretigers, werefoxes, and even werehyenas.
Frankenstein isn't the name of the monster: It's the name of his creator, Victor, in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel. Shelley was inspired by travels in Germany, which took her near Frankenstein Castle. Frankenstein is German surname and place-name, roughly meaning "stone of the Franks." The Franks, or "freemen," were a Germanic tribe whose name also survives in frank, and French.
The word vampires came out of the dark in early 1700s, borrowed from the French vampire, itself taken from a Slavonic source by way of Hungary. But the etymological flight of vampire may not be over: it is argued that vampire ultimately comes from a northern Turkish word, uber, meaning witch. (Any connection to the transportation company is coincidental.)
Back in the 1400s, mummy referred to a bituminous substance (think asphalt). Its French (mommie) and Latin (mumia) sources also named a substance used to embalm corpses. Latin directly borrowed its mumia from the Arabic mumiya, "bitumen" which meant wax. It wasn't until the 1600s that mummy, used for Egyptian mummification, actually named those de-organed, embalmed corpses.
Like mummies, zombies are also corpses brought back to life. But unlike mummy, zombie was brought into English not from the Middle East but from West Africa's nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish). Via the slave trade, the word made its way to English, where folklore told of corpses magically raised from the dead.
Speaking of ghosts, they've been long haunting English. The Old English gast meant spirit, including good ones, bad ones, and, well, holy ones. Forms of ghost are found throughout the Germanic languages, possibly all coming from an Indo-European root referring to fear or amazement. Ghost settles into its modern meaning—an apparition of a dead person—in the 14th century.