In America, the FBI has Carnivore and the NSA, Echelon. Russia's FSB has SORM. All of these projects detect certain keywords and phrases in everyday communications in the name of anti-terrorist surveillance.

In an attempt to thwart these intrusions (or at very least make them less effective), Emacs has included a command to help a paranoid user create false positives:

M-x spook

Loosely based on Yow, the Zippy the Pinhead quote generator (M-x yow), this command inserts fifteen random politically charged words or phrases from spook.lines at the cursor -- for example,
BATF North Korea NSA Delta Force cracking Saddam Hussein Uzi World Trade Center jihad cryptographic plutonium PLO AK-47 Legion of Doom CIA
Included with GNU Emacs 20.7 is the following spook.lines file:

This is the same format as zippy's yow.lines file.
Every entry ends in a ascii 0 (control-atsign)
Everything before the first ascii 0 is a comment.
Add your favorite spook phrases here!

$400 million in gold bullion
[Hello to all my fans in domestic surveillance]
class struggle
Delta Force
domestic disruption
Ft. Bragg
Ft. Meade
Legion of Doom
North Korea
Rule Psix
Saddam Hussein
SEAL Team 6
South Africa
Waco, Texas
World Trade Center
Of course, an especially wary individual can add their own.

A word with a checkered past

The word spook has traditionally been used as a sort of generic word for creepy creatures that wander about in the darkness—ghosts, bogeymen, ghouls, imps, and that sort of thing. Experts in the field of word origins compare the Norwegian word spjok (ghost—Danish: spøgelse, and in Swedish: spöke) and spiganis (Will-o'-the-wisp or corpse candle).

It is thought that there is a connection between the idea of 'to jest' or 'to scare' and this word. The Danish word spøg can mean 'to frighten someone as a prank.' There may also be a connection between this word and the English word spark.

Somewhere in the early 20th century, Caucasian racists decided to co-opt this term as a slur against blacks. The concept that black people were hard to see at night, thus linking them with evil night-stalking monsters, goes back into the misty past of race relations. The term is well-documented to have been in use since the early 1940s, but I have an earlier attribution for this slur.

In one of the Little Rascals shorts (Spooky Hooky, from 1936), the juvenile protagonists have to go into school after hours to deliver a bogus doctor's note to the teacher's desk so that they can sneak off to the circus the next day. The school proves a scary place after hours, and at one point, Buckwheat (the black child) tells his companions "They's spooks out there!" Causing his friend Spanky to quip "Oh Buckwheat! The only spook out there is you." Ouch. (This episode has since been sanitized, and the offensive line removed, but it is still available if you know where to look.)

Because of the racist overtones, the word fell out of favour, and now is pretty much restricted to the cloak-and-dagger meanings. I have actually seen instances on etymology discussion boards where young people were unaware of the other meaning of the word altogether, which I think is kind of nice.

Africa Update Archives: online "What is the Etymology of the term Spook?";f=95;t=000880
Online Etymology Dictionary:
Dimivew assisted with a bit of linguistic aid love what you can find out on the web

Spook is a book by popular science writer Mary Roach. She is particularly well-known for her book Stiff, a scientific and historical look at what happens to your body after death. This was quite a successful book, and perhaps more importantly, extremely well researched. I suspect the surfeit of research was a primary cause of Spook. It takes over where Stiff left off, being a look a the science and history of afterlife researchers.

The author tells us of anatomists dissecting corpses to try to locate the soul, researchers studying reincarnation in India, attempts to weigh the soul, mediums, people researching the mediums, and, of course, ghosts. It is a wide-ranging exploration, and more entertaining than you may be thinking. Roach brings her excitement and interest -- and her ability to make random connections -- into all matters, no matter how silly or spurious. And she is not shy in mocking those things which are clearly deserving of a good mocking.

Of course, being Roach, she also has a slightly immature sense of what is worthy of our interest; she herself rates her sense of humor at the 4th grade level, although I'd be more likely to put it somewhere around the 7th grade. The result is that we also hear in more detail than we otherwise might about Rabbinical judgments on who is liable in the case of damage caused by a bull penis, Leeuwenhoek's extraction and observation of sperm, a briefly famous occultist who hid pieces of baby rabbits in her vagina so that she could mystically 'give birth', and Gigot de La Peyronie's experiments in extracting and injecting pus from the brain of a teenage boy. All of which is at least tangentially relevant to the issues at hand.

I do not mean to suggest that this book is solely an attempt to entertain at the cost of the spiritually inclined. There is a good bit of science; discussions about the effects of electromagnetic radiation and ultra-low-frequency sound on humans, whether one might misinterpret errant radio broadcasts as ghosts, and so forth. While the bits on the cutting edge of science aren't as technical as I might like, they are well-worth reading, and quite enlightening.

Nor does this book attempt to discredit all belief in the afterlife. Although Roach leans towards skepticism, she does not come to any firm conclusions about the world beyond (although she does have things to say about some of the purveyors of modern mythology). I suppose that she is trying to be fair and balanced in her research, which is fair.

This is one of those book that I don't feel I need to give an opinion on; either you think this sounds interesting, or you don't. I will say that if you are on the borderline, I do find Roach's writing style interesting and fun, and I suspect that you will to. If this book does not sound interesting, I still recommend considering some of her other books, which are a bit more firmly rooted in the hard sciences.

Spook (?), n. [D. spook; akin to G. spuk, Sw. spoke, Dan. spogelse a specter, spoge to play, sport, joke, spog a play, joke.]


A spirit; a ghost; an apparition; a hobgoblin.

[Written also spuke.]

Ld. Lytton.

2. Zool.

The chimaera.


© Webster 1913.

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