Raw-head, bloody bones, and other terrors of the nursery

By Eleanor Maier, OED
Please note: the links in this article require subscriber access to the OED Online. A quick tour of the Historical Thesaurus is available on open access.

‘Bloudy bone, Bloudelesse and Ware woulf’

The relaunched version of OED Online is now integrated with the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, and these two resources allow one to go on fascinating explorations.

Let us take, for example, the recently revised raw-head n.2 as a starting point. It has the following gruesome definition:

A bugbear or bogeyman, typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin, invoked to frighten children. Also occas.: a skull. Freq. used in conjunction with bloody-bones (see bloody-bones n.). Cf. raw-flesh n., raw neck n.

Raw-head first makes an appearance in c1564, along with his friend Bloody-bones; however, as quotation dated 1566 shows, he was already a familiar figure:

1566  J. Rastell Thirde Bk. to Beware M. Iewel f. 9v, There is not that Discretion or Consideration, by which they may..put a difference betwene their Grandmothers tale of Bloudy bone, Raw head, Bloudelesse and Ware woulf, and the Churches Doctrine of Hell and the Deuill.

All cultures from all ages have their own monsters and bogeymen; the ancient Greeks told scary stories about Lamia, Mormo, and Empusa; Italians have l’uomo nero, literally ‘the black man’ a figure in a black coat who kidnaps children who don’t finish their meals; and in Iceland children were frightened by the troll Grýla, who, along with her husband Leppalúdi the scarecrow, would kidnap naughty children. She is described thus by the Icelandic folklorist Jón Árnason:

Grýla had three hundred heads, six eyes in each head, besides two livid and ghostly blue eyes at the back of each neck. She had goat’s horns, and her ears were so long as to hang down to her shoulders at one end, and at the other to join the ends of her three hundred noses. On each forehead was a tuft of hair, and on each chin a tangled and filthy beard.
Icelandic Legends by Jón Árnason trans. by G. E. J. Powell and E. Magnússon (1864), 150.

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Terrors in the OED

Some of these foreign bogeymen have made their way into the OED, and we can use the new online version to search for these and other monsters. For example, starting at the entry for raw-head  we can click on the thesaurus link, this shows us that Raw-head is in the category ‘nursery bugbears’, a group which includes among others, bloody bones, scare-babe (1591), and Turk (1598). By going up a level to ‘object of terror (usually imaginary)’ even more monsters appear including Tom Poker (1825) who ‘inhabits dark closets’, and mormolukee (1624) whose etymology is a combination of the Greek bogeyman Mormo and λυκος meaning ‘wolf’ (compare that other monster, the lycanthrope).

Alternatively one can find such bogeymen by searching for certain words in definition text. Typing ‘bogeyman’ in the quick search box and then clicking on definitions, brings up one result, our friend Raw-head (alternatively one can specifically look for words in the definition text by using the advanced search function). Searching ‘bogey’ brings up more results in definitions including black man n. 2 (compare Italy’s l’uomo nero) and puckle. Finally one can type in ‘monster’ and read about the bunyip, Ogopogo, and padfoot—from where one can again click the thesaurus link to read about more goblins (1327), hobgoblins (1530), and imps (1584).

Alternatively …

Or, if all these monsters are too scary, one can go in a different direction. Typing ‘nursery’ into the quick search box brings up several childhood monsters; however one can choose instead to focus on nursery words such as beddy-byes  (1906) and baa-lamb, and then from baa-lamb use the thesaurus to investigate Womble (creation of the recently deceased Elisabeth Beresford, 1926-2010) and shmoo. The shmoo is particularly interesting in being an invention of the American cartoonist Al Capp (1909-79), who also coined several other expressions which have made their way into the dictionary; but that is another story ….

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. Using the Historical Thesaurus of the OED also allows you to explore the changing language of fear and terror in the face of such monsters: states of grure (c900), ferdlac (1340), and gastness (1374) are early examples.
  2. You can also explore the OED by subject categories, including entries relating to mythology of which there are more than 800: from the Old English mermin to the modern-day Moomin (1950).

How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries relating to mythology by using Browse / Search (Religion and belief / mythology). Results may be ordered alphabetically or by date of entry.

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