[Note: This column was distributed to subscribers last October.]
Dear Word Detective: O Grand and Mighty Word Detective, Master of Arcane Linguistic Knowledge! Hear me! …Ahem, sorry. I seem to have been taken over by a touch of the over-dramatic, but then again, it is somewhat related to my question. Perhaps it is because of the Halloween atmosphere right now, but I have suddenly been reminded of being told by one of my Arabic literature professors, some years ago, that the word “macabre” is in fact derived from Arabic, from the word “maqabir,” which is the plural form of “maqbara,” meaning “graveyard.” Now, while I’m generally suspicious of such claims, it does seem pretty enticing: the phonetic and semantic similarity is quite striking, and the explanation offered in my Oxford Concise (“from Danse Macabre ‘dance of death’, from Old French, perhaps from Macabe, ‘a Maccabee’, with reference to a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabees”) actually feels weaker. So, what do you say? Is the Arabic source actually plausible, or is “macabre” more Hanukkah than Halloween? Or is it something else entirely? — Yael.
Halloween already? I guess so. Speaking of which, today we passed some poor schmuck standing on the curb, trying to drum up business for one of those “Halloween Megastores” that pop up in strip malls at this time of the year. He was, of course, in costume, dressed as … wait for it … Gumby! Uh, Gumby? Was there some late-period Gumby movie, maybe “Gumby and the Vampire Chainsaw of Horror,” that I missed? Because otherwise that’s just depressing.
It’s definitely the time of year for all things “macabre,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome; tending to produce horror in a beholder.” The adjective “macabre” has been used in this sense since the late 19th century (“It was the material representation … of the ghastly, the grim, and the macabre which Webster intended,” 1892). “Macabre” can also be a noun, meaning either something macabre or the quality of being macabre (“The macabre of … Baudelaire, gave the impression of decadence,” 1958).
The theory you encountered tying “macabre” to the Arabic “maqabir,” meaning “graveyard” is indeed enticing, and it seems to have been enticing scholars for many years. There was a discussion of just this question on an Arabic linguistic mailing list about ten years ago, in fact. But apparently there are historical problems connecting the two words (the Oxford English Dictionary states bluntly that “there is no evidence” to support that theory), and so most etymologists accept the “Danse Macabre/Maccabees” theory.
The “Maccabees” were a Jewish rebel army who freed Judea from the Greek-Macedonian Seleucid Empire around 164 B.C. and have been celebrated ever since as heroes and martyrs. The deaths of the Maccabees were vividly and gorily described in early religious texts, and eventually reverence for the Maccabees was associated with respect for death in general as well as for Death personified. This was most vividly illustrated in the Middle Ages in Europe by the “Danse Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” a theme in art and literature featuring the classic figure of Death, a skeleton bearing a scythe, leading the living in their dance toward inevitable death. The final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” famously depicts just such a “danse macabre,” and if you’re insufficiently gloomy after seeing that film, you can always check out Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 16th century painting “The Triumph of Death,” in which Death rides a horse and just about everything has gone horribly wrong. It makes great desktop wallpaper, by the way. People who see that on your laptop will not interrupt your work.
The “macabre” of “Danse Macabre” is actually Old French and is thought to have been derived from the Latin “Maccabaeus” (Maccabees) or the Greek form, “Makkabios.” But by the Middle Ages, “macabre” had largely lost its connection to the Maccabees, and few people today even associate the word with the “Dance of Death,” which strikes me as a shame. Halloween ought to be about more than cookie-cutter serial killers and lame pop-cult costumes (Gumby?). The truly “macabre” is the dimension of the deeply creepy and awesomely strange. It’s not just another mechanical “Boo!”