Boo – the sound that strikes fear in children everywhere – is most likely to have originated from Scotland, a linguist revealed today.
The word, which is associated with all things ghostly and supernatural, was first used in the 18th century in a religious themed book.
The earliest known use with the spelling “boo” was recorded in the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d written by Gilbert Crokatt and John Monroe under the pseudonym of Jacob Curate in 1738.
It is defined as “a word that’s used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children”.
Scots poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott also made reference to the sound in his series of essays titled Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft from 1830.
He wrote “we start and are afraid when we hear one cry Boh!” defining it as an “an exclamation intended to surprise or frighten”.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows “bo” or “boh” used from the sixteenth century, but its exact sense is not always clear.
David Robinson, a linguist from Glasgow University, who works on the origins of English, said: “There is a tendency to consider words like this as slang and unimportant, and not to trace their origins.
“The OED gives the etymology of ‘bo’ as ‘a combination of consonant and vowel especially fitted to produce a loud and startling sound’.
“However, different words are used in different languages — for example, French ghosts say ‘hou’, so it should be possible to trace the origins of individual words.
“Since it appears that Scottish ghosts were the first to say ‘boo’, it would be really interesting to find where this word came from.
“If it does come from the north of Scotland, then it might come from Gaelic.
“Gaelic ghosts do say ‘boo’ (spelled ‘b?’), but we don’t know if the Gaelic came from the Scots or the Scots from the Gaelic.’
David added: “There is very little data to go on. I’d be interested to know what Scots- or Gaelic-speaking ghosts from the 18th or 19th century would have to say about this.”