Zombie: What’s In a Word?

I remember watching Night of the Living Dead in college 20 years ago, and thinking it was one of the funniest movies I`d ever seen. But it wasn`t meant to be a comedy. AMC`s tv series The Walking Dead is more sophisticated, and the special effects are far superior.

American`s fascination this Haitian voodoo legend goes way back. The word zombie if of West African origin. It`s first mention in English comes from Robert Southey`s 1819 history of Brazil, but it was W.B. Seabrook`s 1929 novel The Magic Island that popularized zombies in the United States.

According to one anthropology site, zombies started out as really annoying people that the community wanted to get rid of. A voodoo priest would administer a substance containing just enough tetrodoxin to make the person appear dead. The priest would then resurrect the person, who perhaps due to the toxic drugs couldn`t remember a thing and appeared to be mindless.

There`s no scientific evidence that any of this is true.

Two contenders for the word of origin are zumbi, a Kikongo word meaning fetish, and the Kimbundu snake god nZambi, which was associated with the spirits of dead people. Kimbundu is a Bantu language. In Kikongo, another Bantu language, Nzambi a Mpungu is the a fatherly sky god who created the world, and Christian missionaries in the 1500s to what is now the Congo used this name to represent God.

Possibly related to zombie is the Spanish word sombra, which is derived from the Latin umbra, both referring to a ghost. There’s likely no connection between sombra and zumbi, but the similar sounds and the fact that both refer to dead people could have created a loose association.

According to DNews, the original goal was to release a person from their mindless state. But if that doesn`t work I guess you could just smash their head in.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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