Some guy once actually mistook me for Stephen King, but he was drunk.

Dear Word Detective: I recently got in a minor debate over the term “Doppelganger.” A friend had seen an episode of Buffy where the same characters from different dimensions met and they referred to the newly added character as a Doppelganger. I had always thought of Doppelgangers as a mimic or spirit that could look like someone else, not applicable in this case, where it was more of a Bizzaro-Superman situation. I know this doesn’t have earth-shattering implications, but I’m real curious about the word in general. –Tim.

Well, the taxonomy of the supernatural is not exactly in my bailiwick, but I’m always up for a field trip to Weirdville. I presume we’re talking about the late great WB TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and not the short-lived C-SPAN copycat series, “Buffy the Heritage Foundation Intern.” Unfortunately, I completely forgot to watch Buffy during its 1997-2003 run, but for those of you similarly bereft, the series concerned a young woman dragooned by Fate into, well, slaying vampires and stuff like that. According to Wikipedia, the whole show was a metaphor for life in high school. What. Ever.

Bizarro, of course, first appeared in a 1958 Superboy comic book, but as I recall (after a bit of research), he was created by a laboratory mishap with a Duplicating Ray, so the trans-dimensional aspect of that Buffy episode doesn’t really match up with Bizarro. Bizarro was also not a “doppelganger” in the strict sense, as that term is reserved for an exact double of a living person (and Bizarro was a hideously malformed version of Superboy).

The word “doppelganger” is German, a combination of “dopple” (meaning “double”) and “ganger” (meaning “goer” or “walker”). Interestingly, although the German form “doppelganger” is in common usage today, the initial form when the term first appeared in English in the early 18th century was the Anglicized “double-ganger,” which made no more sense in English than “doppelganger,” but sounded less foreign.

The “doppelganger” has been a fixture of folklore in many cultures for centuries, and is usually said to appear as a wraith, or insubstantial duplicate, of a person. A person may see his or her own “doppelganger,” which is said to be bad luck and an omen of impending death, illness, or, presumably, dementia. Friends may also see the “doppelganger” when the actual person is elsewhere, perhaps at a party to which the friends are not invited. Traditionally, “doppelgangers” cast no shadow, are invisible in mirrors, and are exempt from jury duty in most jurisdictions.

While believers in the paranormal use the term “doppelganger” in the literal woo-woo spooky sense, in common usage “doppelganger” has come to serve simply as a synonym for “double” or, still more loosely, “a person who shares important characteristics of another,” much as the word “clone” is now used loosely. So the use of “doppelganger” in the Buffy episode you cite is certainly in the ballpark of common usage.

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