Sunday, May 2, 2010


Here's a conundrum, dear readers. What is the most terrifying single word in the English language?

You might think "terrorism" or "fire" or "recession" or "RuPaul" are frightening*, but according to the sort of decorations that get put up every Halloween, the scariest of all the words available in the entirety of our mother tongue** appears to be a simple three-letter word:


(As an aside, I should point out that I am fully aware that we also commonly use "Boo!" as a way of indicating that the performance we are watching is not at all up to snuff. If you're unaware of this usage of the word, simply attend any showing of Brendan Fraser's "Furry Vengeance".***)

We all take it for granted that ghosts say "Boo!" Why is that? When one dies with unfinished business on Earth, and goes to all the effort to avoid moving on to the afterlife in order to haunt the mortal world, why does one then float around just saying "Boo!" to everybody? What is it that is supposed to be so very frightening about that particular word?

If we grant that the word "Boo!" is in fact frightening why do we not have harrowing nightmares from watching the Yogi Bear Show as children?**** It starred Yogi Bear, whose sidekick's name featured the terrible word not once, but twice! In theory, Boo-Boo should have scared the corn flakes right out of us every time Yogi mentioned his name. But he didn't. He was just sort of lame.

Now, I will grant that a ghost -- a supernatural, semi-transparent apparition -- would be pretty scary to see, and I suppose it would remain pretty scary no matter what it said.***** But even more inexplicably, alone among the components of modern English, the word "Boo!" is apparently assumed to remain scary even in written form. For example, if I were to write:


I can then continue my story secure in the knowledge that I have just narratively frightened my readers. Except that this never actually works. Seriously, when was the last time you read a story with the word "Boo!" in it and wet your pants with fright?******

Even better, the word doesn't even need a supporting story to retain its potency. At Halloween time, people put up decorations that consist of nothing but the word "Boo!" Have you ever walked around a corner, read the word "Boo!" written on something, and experienced a scare or any amount of startlement as a result? "Whoa! I read that word really quickly, and I was so frightened that now I need to change my trousers!"

What is it that is supposed to be so uniquely scary about the word "Boo!"? Is it the shape of the letters? Are 1-800 numbers likewise terrifying? I mean, "800" looks a lot like "BOO"... but perhaps it loses power in proportion to how dissimilar it is to the canonical "BOO!". So maybe if you came around a corner and saw the number "800" on a house or something, you'd only be mildly concerned rather than actively terrified. A one looks a lot like an exclamation point at first glance... would "8001" be scary like "BOO!"?

Look, it's the year 2010. Can't we do better than "Boo!"? It's only scary when someone sneaks up behind you and yells it, and in that case, anything would be scary. They could shout "kittens" and you'd still jump.*******

Honestly, I'm going to have to give "Boo!" a very low rating. Since I haven't come up with a rating system yet, I suppose I'll use a scale of zero to five artichokes********, where five artichokes is something totally awesome*********, and zero artichokes is something totally crap**********.

With that in mind, I decree that "Boo!" gets one artichoke out of five.

* And you'd be right!

** Fun fact: nobody knows how many English words there even are. The Oxford English Dictionary defines over 600,000 words, and the people at the Global Language Monitor reckon that we passed a million words around a year ago. A million words! Dang.

*** Don't actually do this.

**** Hanna-Barbera's Laff-A-Lympics, on the other hand, was terrifying.

***** Even if it just kept repeating "Head On! Apply directly to the forehead!" Actually, now I'm not sure if that would make a ghost less scary or more scary.

****** If this really does happen, then I suppose we'd have to assume that Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird specifically to upset this guy.

******* Of course, if you're as allergic as I am, the word "kittens" is already kind of scary.

******** What? I like artichokes!

********* Like having five artichokes.

********** Like Scrappy-Doo.***********

*********** Hat tip to the Brunching Shuttlecocks.


  1. Masterful use of asterisks. I expecially was taken with the 6-asterisk footnote.

  2. I demand a byline here. ;)