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What’s the definition of a bugaboo?

The term “bugaboo” refers to an imaginary monster or goblin that is used to frighten children. It can also mean a source of obsessive fear, worry or irritation. The word first appeared in English in the early 18th century and is thought to have originated from the Algonquian word “pugaboo” meaning “evil spirit.” In this article, we’ll explore the origins and definitions of the word bugaboo, look at some examples of its use, and discuss why certain things become bugaboos or sources of irrational fears.

Etymology and Early Usage

The earliest known use of “bugaboo” in print comes from a 1708 letter by British author Mary Wortley Montagu, in which she wrote “Bogey is used in the north for the same purpose as bugbear and bugaboo.” This indicates that the word had already been in use in spoken English prior to this date.

Year Early Usage Example
1708 Bogey is used in the north for the same purpose as bugbear and bugaboo.
1761 Nurse-maids frighten children with the bugaboo instead of the whip.
1840 Bugaboo, a goblin, or bugbear.

The term bogey also referred to a goblin or frightful apparition, stemming from the Middle English word “bugge” meaning “object of terror.” Bugaboo emerged as a variant of bogey. By the mid 18th century, bugaboo had become commonly used to frighten misbehaving children, as seen in a 1761 issue of The London Magazine: “Nurse-maids frighten children with the bugaboo instead of the whip.”

Definitions and Meanings

The primary definitions of bugaboo are:

– A monster, goblin or other imaginary creature used to frighten children.
– A source of obsessive fear, worry, or irritation; an obsession.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bugaboo as “a source of needless fear or worry; a bugbear.” Merriam-Webster offers similar definitions: “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance” and “an imaginary object of fear.”

The word is often used in the phrases “to have a bugaboo about/over” or “to make a bugaboo of” something, indicating an irrational or excessive fear. For example:

– “He has a bugaboo about germs and is always washing his hands.”
– “She made a bugaboo out of the possibility of failing the exam.”

So a bugaboo refers to an exaggerated fear or fixation on something that causes more anxiety than is warranted. It implies irrationally obsessing over unlikely threats or dangers.

Evolution of the Word Over Time

While bugaboo originally referred to a goblin or monster used to frighten disobedient children, over time the word broadened to cover any excessive fear or phobia.

19th Century Usages

In the 1800s, bugaboo was often used in the context of politics, referring to fears or threats that politicians exaggerated for effect. For example, an 1837 newspaper reported that a certain group “pretend that the bank is a political bugaboo.”

It was also used more generally for any persistent worry, as seen in an 1848 magazine: “He had a particular bugaboo, in the shape of a purge, which he regularly inflicted upon the child on Sunday morning.”

20th Century Usages

By the 1900s, bugaboo had expanded from politics and health to other realms. An 1907 article noted “Motor cars were quite a bugaboo only a few years back.” In 1923, bugaboos were described as the “intangible phantoms” that prevent clear thinking.

The term also gained uses in business and economics. A 1921 New York Times article mentioned “the Bolshevik bugaboo” frightening capitalists, while a 1975 Chicago Tribune discussed inflation as a looming economic bugaboo.

Contemporary Usages

In the 2000s, bugaboo remains a widely used term in media, books, and everyday speech. A 2022 CNN article noted that rising interest rates are the current “bugaboo for the housing market.”

Some common modern bugaboos include:

– Public speaking / stage fright
– Snakes, spiders, mice, heights (phobias)
– Climate change, terrorism, pandemics
– Government overreach, vaccine mandates
– Inflation, recession, job loss

So the flexible term can apply to all types of exaggerated anxieties and fears that loom large in public discourse or individual psychologies.

Common Bugaboos and Irrational Fears

Certain things tend to become outsized objects of fear or fixation across societies. Here are some widespread bugaboos and why they take hold.

Supernatural Bugaboos

Bugaboo Description
Monsters under the bed Childhood fear of imaginary creatures hiding beneath the bed
Vampires Mythological undead creatures who consume human blood
Zombies Fictional reanimated corpses popularized in horror movies

For centuries, supernatural bugaboos like vampires, zombies, ghosts, and monsters have instilled fear and fascinated human imaginations. They represent primal anxieties about death, the unknown, and forces beyond our control.

Realistic Bugaboos

Bugaboo Description
Public speaking Fear of speaking before groups stems from social judgement worries
Plane crashes Low-probability events seem scarier due to media coverage
Shark attacks Rare events exaggerated by movies like Jaws

Phobias of public speaking, flying, or sharks are examples of exaggerated fears of objectively minor or unlikely threats. Cognitive biases like negativity bias make rare dangers seem more common than they are.

Sociopolitical Bugaboos

Bugaboo Description
Immigrants viewed as economic and cultural threats
Terrorism exaggerated fears of extremist attacks
Tech companies concerns about privacy violations

Fears about immigrants, privacy, or terrorism often become overblown in public discourse. Politicians and media leverage these bugaboos, whether the dangers are real or imagined.

Why Bugaboos Catch On

Certain characteristics make fears more likely to become widespread bugaboos:

– **Negative bias** – We pay more attention to negative stimuli
– **Availability heuristic** – Easily recalled threats seem more common
– **Ambiguity** – The unknown seems scarier
– **Powerlessness** – Lack of control magnifies fears
– **Suggestibility** – Social transmission spreads fears

By understanding these psychological tendencies, we can better evaluate risks rationally rather than fixating on exaggerated bugaboos.

Using Reason to Address Bugaboos

While bugaboos and phobias are natural parts of human psychology, we can use reason and evidence to put them in perspective. Some tips include:

– **Evaluate real risk** – Look at statistical likelihood and factual evidence. A shark attack is very rare compared to everyday dangers like car accidents.

– **Challenge assumptions** – Consider whether the fear is based on flawed premises. For example, data shows immigrants commit less crime than native citizens.

– **Seek incremental exposure** – Try controlled small doses of the thing you fear, like speaking briefly to a small group. Avoid avoidance.

– **Reframe mentally** – Look at the fear objectively and try to see it in a neutral or humorous light. “Public speaking is just having a conversation with more people.”

– **Visualize success** – Imagine yourself confidently overcoming the fear, like giving a smooth speech, to build self-efficacy.

With time and effort, exaggerated bugaboos can be shrunk down to manageable size when we use our reasoning abilities. The goblins that haunt the mind’s shadows can be banished by the light of evidence and logic.

Famous Quotes About Bugaboos

Let’s look at some insightful perspectives on bugaboos and irrational fears from famous figures:

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

The US president was referring to economic crisis fears during the Great Depression, but the quote captures how fear is often the greater bugaboo to be conquered.

“There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. Well, fear and danger. Well, fear, danger and the bogeyman. Well, fear, danger, the bogeyman and that creepy old guy down the street who never takes out his garbage cans and might be building an army of dolls out of women’s shoes for all we know.” – The Simpsons

This Simpsons quote pokes fun at how we can always find one more unlikely bugaboo to worry about if we let fear get out of hand.

“Phobophobia – fear of phobias.” – Stephen Wright

The comedian wittily suggests the tendency to spiral into meta-fears and obsess over our own anxieties. The solution lies in facing fears rationally.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.” – Ambrose Redmoon

This perspective highlights that courage is not being fearless, but pursuing meaning despite fear. We can choose to focus on purpose, not exaggerated bugaboos.


The term bugaboo emerged in the early 1700s referring to a fanciful goblin used to frighten misbehaving children. By the 1800s, it had expanded to represent any excessive fear or source of worry blown out of proportion. Phobias, unrealistic sociopolitical fears, and unlikely threats often become outsized bugaboos due to cognitive biases in human psychology. However, we can use reason, critical thinking, and exposure techniques to overcome irrational bugaboos and redirect focus to real risks and purposeful living. While some degree of fear and anxiety is inevitable, we always have the power to shine an inner light on the deceptive goblins of the mind.