NPR published this article on the etymological history of "spooky" in 2017, but I didn't read it myself until last year. I knew that "spook" had its spy-level implications, of course; I just didn't realize how complicated the racialized appropriation of the word had grown over the years.
Spook comes from the Dutch word for apparition, or specter. The noun was first used in English around the turn of the nineteenth century. Over the next few decades, it developed other forms, like spooky, spookish, and of course, the verb, to spook.
From there, it seems, the word lived a relatively innocuous life for many years, existing in the liminal space between surprise and mild fear.
It wasn't until World War II that spook started to refer to black people. The black Army pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute were referred to as the "Spookwaffe" — waffe being the German word for weapon, or gun. (Luftwaffe was the name of the German air force).
Once the word "spook" was linked to blackness, it wasn't long before it became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur.
NPR has a lot more fascinating details on the shifting usage and meaning of "spook"/"spooky" over the years. And lest you're afraid this is one of those supposed instances of people "looking for things to get offended by," the article addresses in what I think is very fair and thoughtful manner, too:
"Be thoughtful about the fact that [spook] now might have the connotation of referring to a black person in a disparaging way," Blake says. "If someone says, 'Did you get spooked?' and there are no black people there, then, OK, you mean 'Did you get scared or frightened?' That's fine, I get it."
But once you insert black people into the situation, Blake says, it's important to be more tactful. "We know that the word 'niggardly' doesn't mean a black person, but let's be sensitive. Are you going to use the word niggardly in front of a group of young students in a classroom? No."
A friend of mine posted this link on Facebook, with a similar contextualization, that I shared on Twitter:
So hey, just: think about your words. Being thoughtful is cool and good.
This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'? [Leah Donella / NPR]
Image: Public Domain via Pexels