The racist history of the word "spook."

Originally published at:


This is only for US English, of course. In UK English sthe meaning is spy, so say it as /ˈspuːk/ and you should be OK.


In US English “spook” also means “spy” and is often used in that context in novels.


So hey, just: think about your words. Being thoughtful is cool and good.

This is what’s always gotten to me about the language thing. Why use a word if it offends people? Does it hurt to not use that word? Does it somehow lessen your existence? I once listened to a colleague bitch about “not being allowed” to use the N-word. I asked him “why do you want to use it so badly? What is it about the word that’s so attractive to you, that you are angry that people don’t want you to use it.” Mostly, it turns out, he just doesn’t like being told what to do. No consideration for anyone’s feelings–he just doesn’t like being told “avoid this word.” He got offended when I said “OK, asshole, seems like we can use whatever words we want?” That’s different, though, it seems.


Note the quite very good BBC [?] television series about the goings-on at MI-5, called Spooks in the UK and MI-5 in the States.


A word that may have been neutral in the past changing to one you must not use simply has everyone spooked.


Or you could just keep on using the word in the non-racist context because fuck prescriptivism and fuck the right-wing stereotype of liberals demanding that everyone must walk on eggshells.


so i understand that the meanings of words change over time, and sometimes they can change into something offensive, but it occurrs to me that words can drop previous meanings as well (just look at what the word “computer” used to mean).

so honest question - is the offensive meaning for this word still in common usage today or are we talking about something that is purely a matter of history?

Next time you meet a spy who happens to be Black, ask him/her if she/he’s a spook and see what you get. That’ll tell you.


Spook was offensive to me sixty years ago. Then I learned about the espionage connection. Never bothered me again.

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Yeah, it lessens me not one bit to avoid words that have offensive connotations. It lessens the folks who know and still use them, though, for they reveal themselves as deplorable (and they are likely to be the types upset they were called deplorable, which is ironic). But hey, it’s not banned, so do what you want to do folks. I’ll keep right on trying to be respectful of others.


We’ve reached the point where there’s been at least a start to bad-faith misappropriation of innocuous symbols by right-wing trolls. Unilaterally asserting “I will not use a word that offends anyone” gives bad-faith trolls a huge opportunity for more bad-faith trolling, at which point the conversation changes from “why shouldn’t we be thoughtful about the use of words that cause legitimate offense” to “is this claim of offense legitimate,” at which point the fight’s basically over.

There’s plainly a subset of words that people largely agree are inappropriate and so broadly offensive that they should be, rightly, stripped from vocabulary except in very specific situations. But there’s a much larger gray area of words (like “spook”) that have significant offensive history and also significant innocuous history, and as this article rightly points out, it’s always important to consider the audience and the context when you’re using a word. And, of course, we’re lucky enough to speak a language that has always adopted freely from other languages and has therefore ended up with a lot of synonyms and near-synonyms. So, often, it’s not that big a deal to avoid words that might cause offense. But that doesn’t mean it will always be so.


No and yes. Some words are just offensive and I don’t use them (or I use them very carefully, to say something deliberate and very specific). There are some words that seem harmless but actually have an unpleasant origin, and I’m happy to be educated about those. But I’m not willing to give up on every word that has ever been used offensively - that would leave me without words, which doesn’t seem right. I will keep using the words I like, innoffensively, as a way to protect them from misuse.


I have literally never ever heard of the word having racist connotations until just now.

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I wonder if you can hijack “and” and give it a racist connotation?

The article itself says that the word’s origins have nothing to do with any racist associations. Also i’ve never heard the word used towards black folk, not that i’m saying that’s not a thing but i just haven’t encountered it myself. Seems to me that the majority of people don’t use it in a negative racist way, if that’s the case why treat the word with extreme caution? If it was appropriated for racist purposes then why not take it back and use it as its meant to be used? Avoiding it seems to me to give power to racist people over our language.


It appears in a lot of movies set in the 50’s and 60’s. Heck, it even got used in Back to the Future, because they clearly wanted to avoid the worse terminology but still provoke racist imagery.


Yes, but it evolved to include a racist association.

I have.


I’m aware of it being used to call black people that, but never actually heard anyone use it that way, as I recall. At least not in real life. Think I became aware of its use from a book or a movie.

Of course one could always replace it with the newer word: spoopy.

I was in my thirties before I learned the other meaning. TBH, it’s more often used in the “spy” context just about everywhere.


I can understand the sentiment here. I despise the idea of letting the racists win in defining a word. But who gets to make the decision about whether a society “takes a word back” or just stops using it? For my part, as I’m not Black, I’ll just use a different word. I don’t ever want to be in the position of attempting to explain to a member of a demonstrably oppressed group that I’m consciously choosing a word weaponized against them because of my desire to defend the word. I don’t expect anyone to give me that much benefit of the doubt.