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A Biography Of 'Boo' Across The World

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If Halloween has a signature sound, it's probably...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Boo.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Such an efficient word - sharp, simple and scary in kind of a friendly way. I mean, Freddy Krueger does not say boo. Your grandmother...

BLOCK: Boo.

CORNISH: She does.

BLOCK: To celebrate Halloween, we want to treat you to a very short biography of boo. It goes back hundreds of years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) The Pope's raw-head-and-bloody-bones cry boh behind the door.

CORNISH: That's boo circa 1672. It's from an English poem that pokes fun at the Pope, which is what English people did back then.

BLOCK: But boo may go back much further to classical times.

ERIN MCKEAN: The Latin boare and the Greek boaein.

BLOCK: That's Erin McKean. She's a lexicographer and founder of the blog Wordnik.

MCKEAN: The Latin is a verb meaning to alarm. And the Greek boaein is to cry aloud, to roar, to shout.

BLOCK: And then when you get into similar sounds, like boh or boog (ph) - beware.

MCKEAN: There are a lot of words for, like, fairies and goblins and things that go bump in the night that start with that same sound - like the bogle, the bogart, the bugbear, the bogeyman - they're all frightening B things.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Boo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Boo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Boo.

CORNISH: If you walk around and ask strangers to say boo - which we did - they get right to it, no shyness. And you discover that people from a lot of other countries use the word. Here it is in Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Boo.

CORNISH: French.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Boo.

CORNISH: Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Boo.

CORNISH: Greek.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Bum.

BLOCK: Wait, Audie, that sounds like bum.

CORNISH: Yeah, actually, I mean, there's boo-ish tendencies.

BLOCK: Kind of.

CORNISH: Yeah, it's boo-like.

BLOCK: OK. Well, we're going to hear a Bengali boo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Boo.

BLOCK: Boo in Nepali.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Boh.

BLOCK: And in the African language Temne.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Booyah (ph).

BLOCK: That is an excellent boo.

CORNISH: Yes, but wait, the whole world does not say boo. If you want to scare someone in Beijing try...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Woah (ph).

CORNISH: In Tibet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Abri (ph).

CORNISH: The Bulgarian boo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Ha (ph).

CORNISH: And when in Kenya, say it in Swahili.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Oha (ph).

BLOCK: There is a method to this madness - a simple rule. If you want to startle someone, do not shilly shally. Keep it short. Keep it sharp.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Boo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: (Screaming).

CORNISH: And if you're the one getting booed, try to keep your cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOO")

USHER: (Singing) My oh, my, my boo.

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) My oh, my oh, my oh, my oh, my boo.

USHER: (Singing) It started when we were younger, you were mine. My boo. Now another brother's taken over but it's still in your eyes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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