Q From Paul LeRoy in the USA: Have you ever heard the expression like a banshee, as in ‘He/she made out like a banshee’? I see the definition of the word banshee is a female spirit that would wail under a window sill of a house where someone was going to die. That being the case, I am really confused where the expression came from.
A I’ve never heard the saying in the modern American slang sense — it hasn’t made it across the Atlantic into British English — but it is recorded in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, with a first example from 1976. Now rather dated, it indicates something out of the ordinary or excessive.
The basic phrase like a banshee has been used many times over the past couple of hundred years as a figurative expression to describe someone screaming or making a noise, usually in an excess of emotion. This has often appeared in the set forms wail like a banshee or scream like a banshee. A modern example is in Steven Levy’s Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution of 1984: “An absurdly expensive musical instrument upon which you could improvise, compose, and, like the beatniks in Harvard Square a mile away, wail like a banshee with total creative abandon”.
Examples in RHHDAS include party like a banshee and run like a banshee. It seems that the idea of a banshee being a noisy spirit in torment has been extended so far it has snapped, most likely out of ignorance of what a banshee actually is, and probably through confusion with like a bandit, another American slang expression which came into the language at about the same time.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Mammock; Mx; Stepney; Vape; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!