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Word of the day: spook (ghost)

As a young child I was sure that Sinterklaas and SPOKEN (ghosts) did exist. Sinterklaas was definitely for real. I knew this because I had sat on the old saint’s knee and he had given me presents in exchange of me singing a stupid song. SPOKEN (ghosts) were something else. They were immaterial, untouchable and inexplicably terrifying.

One night when I stayed over at my grandmother’s house, I woke up in my bed in the attic. Someone with a heavy step was climbing the stairs. The door of my small bedroom opened and someone stood there watching me intensely. I heard his breathing in the darkness. I felt cold puffs of air on my skin. There was no one there. I tried to call my grandmother: ‘Oma, oma!’ but the sounds never left my throat. I lay there petrified with fright in the dark. After a while the apparition vanished and worn out by fright I fell asleep again.

The next morning I told my grandmother what had happened. And instead of saying: ‘you silly boy’, she looked at me in concern as if she understood what I had gone through. Who? What? Why? How? When I looked into her eyes it was clear that we both knew that it must have been a SPOOK (apparition, ghost) that visited me. A sense of pride took possession of me.

I was grateful to the unknown visitor, even though it had stirred a terrifying sense of imminent GEVAAR (danger). GEVAAR is what makes one fear. (See previous posting about GEVAAR). The encounter was frightening but at the same time it had made me feel very special.

Then I grew up. I made up my mind: the SPOOK in my life was a ‘hersenspinsel’ (literally: brain spinnings, figments of my imagination).

And yet, there have been lots of deceased minds since then, who have tried to make their presence known to me. Some even talk to me and listen to me. They communicate with me through printed materials.

The other day, for instance, I summoned my good friend Baruch Spinoza who died in The Hague in 1677 to help me argue why ghosts cannot be real. He talked to me through the medium of a letter that he sent to a contemporary friend, Hugo Boxel, in September 1674. Spinoza said to me:

‘So far I have not heard any intelligible quality attributed to spectres or ghosts. They seem like phantoms, which no one can understand. When you say that spectres, or ghosts, in these lower regions (as you call the world we live in) consist in a very thin rarefied and subtle substance, you seem to me to be speaking of spiders’ webs, air, or vapours. To say, that they are invisible, seems to me to be equivalent to saying that they do not exist….’

The word SPOOK goes back to medieval days when the world was riddled with immaterial beings: devils, angels, elves and ghosts. People saw them fly everywhere. Now, in these days of secularization, the Dutch expression ‘hij ziet ze vliegen’ (literally: he sees them flying) means ‘he’s got a screw loose’ or ‘he’s off his rocker’.

The German ‘Spuk’, Norwegian ‘spjok’, Danish ‘spøge’ and Swedish ‘spöke’ all mean supernatural beings, ghosts, These words are evidence that this word was common among Germanic peoples. English lost it, but the Americans reintroduced SPOOK in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Americans have felt ‘spooky’ since 1854 and somewhere in the second World War an ‘undercover agent’ was called a ‘spook’.

The Hague could be called SPOOKSTAD (ghostcity) of the Netherlands. Many houses give shelter to ghosts and spectres. In the next few days I’ll go in search of some of these SPOOKHUIZEN (ghosthouses) and SPOOKVERHALEN (ghoststories). Do you know any? Tell us. Tell us, tell us, quick, for we like to get spooked. Don’t you?