The Creeps

Fright Night vs. The Upper Berth.

Dear Word Detective: I find myself saying “that creeps me out” more than I would like these days. I am in my fifties, and believe I grew up saying “that gives me the creeps.” I don’t know when I adopted this newer expression, but I don’t like it. Can you tell me how old these two expressions are, and if there is something people might have used at the turn of the previous century? — Elizabeth.

That’s an interesting question, and I think I agree with you in preferring “that gives me the creeps.” It seems a bit more vivid and considered, and while “that creeps me out” is superficially more direct, it sounds airless, vague and much weaker. But I may be giving this too much thought.

Just when the use of “creeps me out” arose is uncertain. The earliest citation for the phrase in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) comes from 1983 (“Univ. Tenn. Student: Just thinking about nuclear war creeps me out”), but that is apparently an instance of use personally heard by the dictionary’s editor and thus of questionable reliability. (I’m actually rather surprised that it’s in this dictionary.) A bit more verifiable is the one other example in the HDAS, from The Simpsons TV show in 1993: “You’re creeping me out.” If I had to guess based on when I remember first hearing the phrase, I’d say the late 1980s or early 1990s.

“Creep” first appeared in Old English as the verb “creopan,” derived from Germanic roots. Most early uses of the verb “to creep” involved the literal sense of, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “To move with the body prone and close to the ground, as a short-legged reptile, an insect, a quadruped moving stealthily, a human being on hands and feet, or in a crouching posture.” This “low and slow” sense, in the 14th century, produced “to creep” meaning “to move stealthily, to sneak,” or “to move or accrete gradually by imperceptible degrees” (as in “creeping socialism”). More importantly for our purposes, the 14th century also saw the development of an intransitive sense of “to creep” applied to one’s skin or flesh meaning “To have a sensation as of things creeping over the skin; to be affected with a nervous shrinking or shiver (as a result of fear, horror, or repugnance)” (OED) (“You make my hair stand on end, and my flesh creep,” Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1841). The current use of “creep” as a verb in “It creeps me out” is a new, transitive sense of the verb meaning (apparently) “to give a person the shivers or a feeling of dread.”

“Creep” as a noun followed a similar trajectory of development, from the mid-19th century onward being used to mean “the feeling of things creeping on one’s body; shivers of dread or horror,” usually in the plural form “the creeps” (“It gives you the creeps all down the small of the back,” 1879). This is, of course, the same “gives me the creeps” you and I grew up with. The use of “creep” to mean “an unpleasant or dangerous person,” incidentally, comes from the slang use of “creep” to mean “a sneak” or even a “sneak thief.”

As for older synonyms of “the creeps” or “to creep” in the “skin crawl” sense, one 18th century equivalent was simply “to crawl” (“You make me crawl all over, talkin’ so much about dyin’,” 1889). Further back in history, we had such cool words as “to agrise” (tremble with horror), “to grue” (feel terror), “to fremish” (tremble), and “to starkle” (show fear). My absolute favorite synonym for “get the creeps,” however, is the 17th century term “horrirpilate,” meaning “to have the hair on one’s skin stand up in fear” (a condition caused by contraction of the muscles under the skin and also known as “goosebumps”). “Horrrpilate” and the noun “horrirpilation” are derived from the Latin verb “horrere” (to shudder or bristle in fear, connected to our “horror”) plus “pilus,” meaning “hair.” In my book, “horrorpilate” beats “creeps me out” by a mile.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page