Word: macabre

Pronunciation: mə-KAH-brə / mə-KAHB

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: disturbing and horrifying because of involvement with or depiction of death and injury

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Ah, the bat. Ambassador of darkness, flitting out of his cave like a winged messenger, sightless specter of the macabre.

– San Diego Zoo Janitor, Friends (Season 2, Episode 12 – The One After The Superbowl)

It’s Halloween, and what better day of the year for horror writers to add a sinister new word to their vocabulary? In the above scene from Friends, Ross is talking to a janitor in the nocturnal house at the San Diego Zoo about Marcel, the monkey he donated the year before and who he was told by the zoo administrator had passed away. The creepy janitor, who’s supposed to be explaining that Marcel is still alive and was actually stolen, instead keeps getting distracted by the nocturnal animals around him, such as the bat he regards as a spirit of death. Horror writers and gothic poets would probably agree with this description; historically feared and misunderstood, bats do have a reputation as “macabre” creatures!

Anything described as “macabre” is horrifying and disturbing due to its depiction of or involvement with injury or death. The word arose in English in the late 19th century and is originally a French adjective, as in Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”). This adjective possibly derives from the biblical name Macabé “Maccabees”, a reference to a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabees.

Though I don’t use it much myself because I don’t particularly care for the horror genre, I admit that I find the word “macabre” fascinating. Muck like the word “oeuvre“, it appeals to me for its French pronunciation and origin as well as for its poetic tone. After all, doesn’t a medieval artistic genre about the universality of death sound much more poetic when referred to as “Danse Macabre” than “Dance of Death”? If you like reading gruesome scenes or descriptions that involve death in any way, you may enjoy writing some “macabre” details into your own stories! Good luck, and Happy Halloween!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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