Wednesday Words: Of Fear and the Macabre

Wednesday Words_Halloween

Last week, I shared some words from the funeral and death industry. This week, we take a slightly happier…well. No. No, I’m lying. This week, all of these words have something to do with death and fear.


This term appeared in the 1630s and means “place beneath the earth”1. The prefix nether– comes from Old English niþera, which means “down, downwards, below, beneath”. That Old English term is derived from the proto-German word nitheraz, which has the same meaning2.

The word “world” also comes from proto-German. Wer, which means “man” and auld, which means “age”3.

Netherworld commonly refers to hell or the abode of the dead. It’s also referred to as the “underworld”.


The Martyrdom of the Seven Brothers, Antonio Ciseri
The Martyrdom of the Seven Brothers, Antonio Ciseri

The word “macabre” first appeared in the early 15th century and referred to a morality play about Death and its victims. It comes from the Old French phrase “danse Macabré” or “Dance of Death”. From there, it’s a guess as to the origins. It may come from the Medieval Latin Chorea Machabæorum, or, Dance of the Maccabees4.

In the Catholic Bible, the two Books of Maccabees tell the story of the Jewish revolt against the Syro-Hellenes. In the Second Book of Maccabees, the martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons is vividly described:

It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh.  One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”

The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and cauldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’” 2 Maccabees 7:1-7, Revised Standard Version

Today, the word “macabre” means “having death as a subject” or “dwelling on the gruesome”5. This definition wasn’t attached to the word until the 19th century6.


Y’know that feeling when you get goosebumps or your hair stands up on end? That feeling that comes when you get cold or enter a creepy house. That’s called horripilation7.

From Insidious
From Insidious: Horripilation at work.

Its roots are in Late Latin and it first appeared in the 17th century. It’s made from “horrere”, which means “to bristle”, and “pilus”, which means “hair”8. So, literally, it means “to bristle hair”.

Interestingly enough, that same term “horrere” is where we get the words “horrid” and “horror”. I guess the human reaction of goosebumps and hair standing on end has been linked with fear for centuries.

1“Netherworld”, Online Etymology Dictionary,

2“Nether”, Online Etymology Dictionary,

3“World”, Online Etymology Dictionary,

4“Macabre”, Online Etymology Dictionary,

5“Macabre”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

6“Macabre”, Online Etymology Dictionary,


8“Horripilation”, Online Etymology Dictionary,

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