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Who doesn’t love Zombi etymology?

December 18, 2013

From NPR CodeSwitch: “Zoinks! Tracing The History Of ‘Zombie’ From Haiti To The CDC” by Lakshmi Gandhi is a good puff piece about early usages of the American zombie word.

The word “zombi” — which for years was spelled without the “e” at the end — first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.

See from GoogleBooks Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, Volume 7: “The Unknown Painter” :

Are you really not afraid of the Zombi, Sebastian?

Happy Murillo! I have done more than paint — I have made a painter.

fulfill his promise, I, too, shall make a name.

NPR is no stranger to Zombies. Gandhi at NPR continuing before mentioning “I Walked With A Zombie”, “Night of the Living Dead”, Zora Neale Hurston “Tell My Horse”:

the mainstreaming of the word would begin in 1929, when the travel writer William Seabrook released his book on Haiti and “voodoo,” titled The Magic Island, in which Seabrook writes about seeing “voodoo” cults in Haiti and the concept of the zombi to many readers. Several film scholars believe the book was the basis of the classic 1932 horror film White Zombie.

But Gandhi jumps from 1943 to 1985 (Wade Davis’ book “The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic.“)

Clairvius Narcisse? Is that the Libyan Doctor on HBO‘s “Boardwalk Empire”? No, but recall prior mention of “Boardwalk Empire” on ZombieLaw. And then from 1985 to 2012 (mentioning the CDC but not the countless other 2012 zombie phenomenon).

So, this is a great article for early history, but fails to really explain the full etymology of the modern word. It leaves out a number of critically important points about how the word connects to computers (automatons) and political identity (though there is the closing tangential reference to crashing websites, and perhaps the unknown painter is sort of like “Anonymous“?).

An astute comment from ChazMortimer also points out that:

Zombie was a bastardization of the Bantu (not dahomeyian) word for the Supreme Being Nzambi. The country Zambia for example means God’s Country…from what I understand, the French demonized the Kikongo spiritual practices, with their deep connection to the deceased and connection to Nzambi

This also seems a good time to mention the “Zombi” entry on the Spanish Wikipedia page, which include a section on etymology (“etimología”) that is not found in the English language zombie page:

Término Significado Lengua País
fúmbi Espíritu. Yoruba (?) Cuba
mvumbi Individuo cataléptico o la parte invisible de un hombre. Área del Congo
ndzumbi Cadáver. Mitsogho Gabón
nsumbi Demonio. Área del Congo
nvumbi Un cuerpo sin alma. Angola
nzambi El espíritu de una persona muerta. Kongo Área del Congo
zan bibi o zan bii La traducción al español sería “El coco” y se usa para asustar a los niños. Ewe, Mina Ghana, Togo, Benín
zombie Retornado (el que ha regresado de la muerte). Kikongo, Bonda Área del Congo, Angola

This Spanish language wiki also mentions a text from 1697 “Le zombi du Grand-Pérou, ou la comtesse de Cocagne” an autobiography by Pierre-Corneille de Blessebois
zombie book 1697 europe


From → Academics, Anonymous

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