A Disturbing History of the Word Bogeyman
& Its Counterparts All over the World
To pay the devil’s due to Halloween, I offer today a short history of the bogeyman, aspects of which are actually disturbing.
Etymology of the Word Bogeyman
Bogeyman is related to Middle English bugge, meaning a frightening spectre and perhaps to boggart ‘bugbear,’ the Welsh bwg, the Scottish Gaelic bòcan and the German bögge, all referring to goblins or frightening creatures. Or “Bogey” may come from the Scottish and northern English bogle (1505 CE) meaning ghost or hobgoblin.
The concept of an itinerant, mendicant bogeyman who steals children to sell or to eat is worldwide. Spanish has el hombre del saco ‘the bag man,’ Portuguese homen do saco, Bulgarian Torbalan ‘man with a bag,’ and Swedish and Finnish mörkö. France has several choice bogeymen including le croque-mitaine ‘mitten-biter’ who hides under beds and in dark places. Him we’ll deal with later. But we’ll begin with Quebec’s very own Bonhomme sept-heures.
Bonhomme sept-heures (The 7 o’clock Man)
The Bonesetter (heard and garbled into French as Bonhomme sept-heures) is an old Quebec bogeyman legend about a traveling peddler and medicine man who journeys from town to town. During the 19th and early 20th centuries when this legend arose, many Quebec towns had no doctors or nurses. There were real bonesetters, both men and women, who would perform modest surgical procedures and who specialized in reducing fractures and dislocations and, as the name implies, would set broken bones and perform manipulations that today might be done by a chiropractor.
In the days before the discovery and use of effective anaesthetics, if a large bone had to be rebroken and reset, the resultant pain and screaming of the patient would have alarmed the entire village. Kids would hear these screams and be terrified of the bonesetter and he or she could easily earn a reputation as a bogeyman. The horrid Quebec folktale adds a special fright: Bonhomme sept-heures took disobedient children as payment for his work and the children disappeared from the town and were never heard from or seen again.
Here are a few tips to keep Bonhomme sept-heures from getting you. His favorite place to hide is under the front porch, then as twilight wanes and mutates into the death-velvet of engulfing night, the musty old thing creeps into the children’s bedroom, sees who is still awake and grabs ‘em! He can only steal kids who are awake. So if you have obediently gone to sleep on time, why then you’re safe!
So the Bonesetter is a Quebec bogeyman made up by parents to frighten children into being obedient and well-mannered and especially into going to bed on time.
His Quebec name is a fascinating example of an English word heard by French-speaking people with very little knowledge of English. Say Bonhomme sept-heures in French and hear how it is an attempt to utter the strange English words bone setter and make them into some kind of comprehensible sense as French words. Know too that a common condensed Québec pronunciation of bonhomme is ‘bom.’
After the Quebec name arises, there is added to the myth the idea that he comes at seven o’clock at night to make sure children are home and getting ready for bed. If you’re not home and still out gallivanting around the farm or the village, well — Bonhomme sept-heures has a very large burlap bag that holds more than one child and he has deep pockets in his shaggy overcoat, long pockets deep enough to hide a child in!
Adds Mike Culpepper on his blog “The Shrine of Dreams”: “Quebec had its bonesetters, like most other places pre-modern medicine, called ramancheurs. So why borrow the English word? Though I suppose les anglais are wicked enough that they are natural choices for bogeymen. Another possible origin for the word is ‘bomb setter,’ slang for the men who would light gas lamps. And, in France, there are traditional bogeys with names like “Bonhomme Basse-Heures.” So maybe “bonesetter” has nothing to do with this creature’s origin?”
Casselman answer: Quebecois French is piled high with Canadian anglicisms, that’s why they borrowed the term, Mike. Calling a demon or devil bonhomme is a folk ploy labeled apotropaic. You call the evil entity a pleasant name, in order not to disturb or annoy it. This trope of evasion appears throughout all of written history, in languages all over the world, especially common in classical Latin and ancient Greek. Ramancheurs set bones; they did not steal children. So they were not as frightful to little children as creatures made up by Quebec mothers and grandmothers to keep kids obedient.
Mes Amis, It’s Plagiarism!
By the way, Mr. Culpepper’s little blog entry is chiefly lifted, unacknowledged, from a page of a previous website entirely written by me. Culppepper lifted his stuff from a French Wikipédia article on Bonhomme sept-heures. The Wiki piece in French is, in places, also an unacknowledged direct translation of sentences from my previous article. So much for the perhaps now academic nicety of disclosing one’s sources. Why, mes enfants, I may have to send Bonhomme sept-heures after these two miscreants.
In one of the few paragraphs of the French Wiki piece not lifted from my writing, some “expert” named Lionel Boisvert is quoted as claiming that Bonhomme sept-heures’s origin in the English term bonesetter is doubtful, because there is a previously existing continental Breton expression Bonhomme basse heure “Mr. Late Hour.” Utter Poppycock. Bonhomme 'good man' is an apotropaic name for the devil that is hundreds of years old. As I explained, the French word bonhomme would have had to have existed for Quebeckers, in order for them to hear in the English word bonesetter the French term bonhomme sept-heures. Quebec academic etymologists agree with my origin, not with the defensive, chauvinist burblings of Monsieur Boisvert.
[from Wikipédia: “Selon Lionel Boisvert du Trésor de la langue française informatisé, que l'on mentionne dans l'article bonhomme sept-heures du grand dictionnaire terminologique, cette étymologie est douteuse, car on trouverait des formes voisines de ce nom en breton : bonhomme basse heure et bonhomme basse hour.”]
M. Boisvert, typical of continental French writers, does not want to acknowledge any linguistic loan debt from English to Quebec French. That renders erroneous a good deal of Boisvert’s musings about Quebec French word origins. He might not want to admit the huge amount of borrowed English in Quebec French, but history attests to it, in spite of M. Boisvert. I commend to his attention a few books detailing the origin of Quebec French and folktales, for example Contes et légendes populaires du Québec par Marc Lavallé, 1985.
The Biting of Mittens? Mais Non!
There is a cheap horror movie titled “The Bonesetter.” And he is the subject of several French children's tales under one of his alternative names, a bogeyman alias known as Le Croque-mitaine “The Mitten-biter.”
Around the World in 80 Bogeymen
France has several choice bogeymen including le croque-mitaine ‘mitten-biter’ who hides under beds and in dark places. There is also, toujours effrayant, le Père Fouettard ‘Father Flogger,’ an evil man dressed in black who stuffs bad children into a big bag and wallops them with a stick or a whip. He is a nightmare version of the punitive father. He even appears as a French Santa Claus! What is it that is so deficient in French taste? First, they laud all those unfunny old Jerry Lewis movies in which Lewis imitates and mocks Down’s syndrome victims then — Santa Claus with a whip!
Drink more milk, mes chers amis.
Greece is home to an under-the-bed lurker known as Μπαμπούλας ‘Baboulas.’
In Persian culture, Iranian children have to watch out for Lulu ( لولو ) who eats bad children who will not finish their meals or who refuse to come to table. Lulu is a.k.a lulu-khorkhore ‘bogeyman who eats everything up.’
In Italy, Annibale might come clomping into your bedroom on a ghost elephant and take you away up into the hills forever. Yes, that’s Hannibal, great Carthaginian general and enemy of Rome, whose black reputation clings to him even today, more than 2,000 years after his depredations against Rome. If the ghostly Annibale is busy on an orphanage call, parents might threaten little Arturo with l'uomo nero ‘the black man,’ a lean dude in a black cloak whose high collar hides his face. If Arturo won’t finish up his pasta, the Black Man might spirit him off to a creepy place for a whole month! But at least he won’t eat Arturo.
Hiding under Russian kids’ beds might be бабай. Babay means ‘old man’ in Tatar and that’s what he is, a warty old fart with a large, dirty bag, just waiting to cart kiddies off if they misbehave.
Ông ba bị ‘Mister Three Bags’ is the North Vietnamese bogeyman, called Ông kẹ in South Vietnam. He frightens kiddies into eating up their whole meal, but in a less creepy way than western bogeymen.
“Long live Saint Nicholas” says this old French Christmas card. Oui — in a French prison! Mon Dieu, I'd hate to see what the French might come up with for a Halloween card!
So, the bogeyman is a worldwide phenomenon, perhaps a folk memory of a distant time when children were routinely stolen and sold into slavery, both laboring and sexual. But is it a distant time?
Bill Casselman, October 22, 2016
Copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016
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Increase your understanding of English words by following worldwide use of the concept of a bogeyman who haunts children
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