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

What does spoopy mean and where did it come from?

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 technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.