One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
What is the origin of the word ‘zombie’?
As most of us are aware, a zombie is a corpse without a soul which people believe has been brought back to life by witchcraft or other supernatural means, and the origin of the word 'zombie' shows us why this is. The idea of zombies originated in the religion of some West African peoples, and it’s to that continent we must look to find out more about the word’s background.
The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that zombie is a word of West African origin and that it was first recorded in English in 1819. It’s related to the words zumbi (meaning ‘fetish’) and nzambi (meaning ‘a god’) in the Kikongo language, which is spoken in Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and surrounding areas. The term zombie or zombi originally also referred to a snake-god in the voodoo religion of West Africa. When these peoples were taken as slaves to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries, they brought their religious beliefs and practices with them. The idea of the zombie then gradually spread through the USA and Europe, fuelled in the 20th century by fiction, the cinema, and television.
Nowadays, zombies are so firmly ensconced in our minds that the word has gained a range of meanings. It can now also refer to:
- a person who is very slow-witted or completely unresponsive to their surroundings;
- a type of cocktail, made with several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice;
- a computer that is controlled by another person without the owner’s knowledge; such computers are used for sending spam or other illicit online activities;
- a zombie bank is one which is insolvent, but which is able to continue to operate because it has government support.
You can discover more on how we talk about zombies on the OxfordWords blog.
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Explore our word origins section
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