Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Bogeyman or boogeyman? If mispronounced, he's gonna getcha!

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Something seems to have come over one of the world's best known boogeymen," wrote the New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler from Tripoli about the new willingness of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to submit to weaponry inspections.

I was about to take my colleague to task for failing to hyphenate "best known" when using it as a compound adjective. But suddenly a sense of dread hit me: why "boogeyman," with the double O directing its pronunciation like "cookie," and not spelled with a single O, to be pronounced like the golf term for 1 over par on a single hole?

A hurried call to Daniel Schorr, senior analyst for National Public Radio and my consultant on pronunciation shift, confirmed my suspicion: "Yeah, when I was a kid in the Bronx, we used to say `boogieman,' but now, generations later, I'd say `bogeyman.' Maybe it has something to do with the term of endearment for Humphrey Bogart."

A couple of days later, a letter appeared in The Washington Post under the headline "527 `Bogeyman' Poses No Threat." The subject was "the most recent `monster' that supposedly threatens democracy -- the `527 organizations' so named for a section of the tax code." The writer, Nan Aron, refused to be "distracted by ill-informed or cynical efforts to lead a mob against this latest bogeyman."

At the same time, the foreign affairs analyst John Vinocur was writing in The International Herald Tribune of the tendency of some European politicians in their continental disunity to adopt "the Bush bogeyman characterization." And covering the candidate Joe Lieberman's dogged refusal to pander to protectionists in Berlin, New Hampshire, the reporter Kareem Fahim wrote in The Village Voice: "Lieberman didn't bite -- even in this town where international trade is a bogeyman."

It's apparent that the boogieman, bogeyman and (in the US 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!"

In the 1920s, because of the longtime association with blackness, "boogie" became a racial slur. It appeared as a derogatory noun in dialogue in novels by Dashiell Hammett in 1929 and Ernest Hemingway in 1937. In the mid-1920s, however, black jazz pianists came up with a percussive style of blues, marked by a heavy rhythmic bass in quadruple time that they called "boogie-woogie" (perhaps based on the West African bogi-bogi, "to dance"), and the reduplication may have ameliorated the slur.

By the 1940s, as a verb, "to boogie" was synonymous with "to cut a rug," later applied to energetic dancing without regard to race. (Other senses range from dried nasal mucus to "Colonel Bogey," a British golfer's mythical companion, and the subject of an old marching song resuscitated by the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.)

In our time -- I'm speculating here -- the growing taboo against racial epithets, as well as an aversion to the frightening of children with "the boogieman will get you if you don't (whatever)," may have led to the reversion to the much earlier spelling and pronunciation of bogeyman. Though the "oh" and "oo" pronunciations are running neck and neck in a Google count, I'll bet "bogey" will win out. Who knows? Maybe Dan Schorr's hunch is right and Humphrey Bogart's nonfrightening ghost is doing it.

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