The origins of “spoopy”, the internet’s favourite Halloween word

What does spoopy mean and where did it come from?

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It was a message written in bones. On a canvas dark as the darkest night, a border of human remains embroidered one, terrifying word.

Or at least, that’s what Ross’s department store was going for. In actual fact, the American shop’s spooky Halloween sign was ruined by one, tiny mistake – an errant “p”.

Via Tumblr user Arts Farts and Cocks

It was 2009 and a Flickr user uploaded an image of the humorously wrong sign onto the site. There it stayed for nearly two years until an ancient curse was lifted and a Tumblr user also found and photographed the sign. Over the course of the next year, “spoopy” became a sensation. Now every October Google searches for the word spike dramatically, as people try to figure out what it means (or get their hands on some spoopy memes).

“It was just a silly Halloween photo,” says Mike Wooldridge, the Flickr user who first uploaded the spoopy picture to the internet. Until I contacted him, Mike had no idea that he was responsible for Halloween's biggest meme. 

“This is the first time I've heard spoopy has become a slang term,” he says. “A store decorator was having some fun. Or maybe they were just out of Ks. I'm surprised and amused.” Amazingly enough, this isn't the first time one of Mike's Flickr photos has become a meme. He is the creator of the pancake astronaut – a humorous image that is exactly what it sounds like. “Maybe I can become a professional meme creator on Instagram. Seems like a nice life,”  he muses.

But what does spoopy actually mean? Urban Dictionary has a simple definition dating back to 2012. “Something that is funny and spooky at the same time,” it reads, giving the example of a ghost falling down the stairs. This is at once right and wrong – as spoopy, like many internet words, deliberately evades such a simple definition. It was once just a word, but it is now a meme. It is funny precisely because it is not.

Spoopy’s brother “creppy” did not have the same fate. In 2013, a Halloween cake iced wrongly so it read “creppy” not “creepy” went viral on Tumblr, but the word hasn’t lasted. Though some still use it, its popularity is nowhere near that of spoopy – a word that many on Twitter use in their usernames in the run up to Halloween. What, linguistically, makes spoopy so popular? 

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, when I asked her earlier this year why misspelled online jokes are so popular. “When spelling is nonstandard it feels like in-group talk – we’re doing things differently between us than everyone else does it out there.” It is certainly true that spoopy is exclusionary – many online complain of not understanding the word.

Susan Herring, a professor of linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington says that spoopy may appeal because it emulates children's speech. 

“A phonological process of consonant assimilation – one consonant in a word changes to be like another – is characteristic of very young children's speech,” she explains, giving the example of “water” being prounced “wahah” or “backpack” as “packpack”. “Both processes suggest a cute childishness, which leads me to predict that 'spoopy' is used more by women then by men, because that kind of cute, childish behavior is considered by society to be more appealing in women.”

Herring also suggests spoopy may appeal due to its resemblance to the mildly taboo word “poopy”. This is a view shared by one commenter on the internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme. To the tune of four likes, a Facebook user named Robert theorises:

“One could also describe it as a portmanteau of ‘spooky’ and ‘poopy’ - i.e. something that is supposed to scare but intrinsically fails to do so.”

It doesn’t seem coincidental that the word “poop” sits so neatly in the internet’s spooptacular Halloween neologism, but it also doesn’t seem worth finishing this sentence either.

Like anything popular, spoopy has its detractors. Beth Fitzgerald is a 38-year-old from Dublin who detests the word.  

“Where did it come from? Why does it exist? I hate it,” she tells me. “It’s a stupid sounding word. It’s like cutesy baby talk. And it doesn't even have the decency to be that different to the word spooky.”

Beth believes spoopy users should simply say “spooky” instead. “Stop twirling your hair around your finger and giggling,” she says. The owner of spoopy.tumblr.com, the online home of spoopy, also jokes about hating the word. “Free me from meme hell,” they write.

Róisín Lanigan, a 26-year-old from London, conversely loves to spoop. “Hating the word spoopy is aggressively un-festive,” she says, “It’s as bad as not dressing up on Halloween.” Róisín uses the word in messages with her friends at this, “the spoopiest time of the year.”

It’s not, Róisín says, that the detractors are especially wrong. She acknowledges the word can be “cringe” and “Tumblr-y” but argues that this is no great crime.

“There are worse words out there more deserving of hate,” she says. “Let the world have spoopy.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh