What is a “turnip-ghost”? A post for Hallowe’en

31st October 2015

There is a great phrase, used by the historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1946:

“Probably Bismarck genuinely believed in the turnip-ghost which he conjured up”.

Here Taylor is describing Bismarck’s response to the small social democratic movement of the 1880s in Germany.

But what hits the spot is that the description conveys both Bismarck’s exaggerated reaction and the sincerity of his fear.

Bismarck was not being (consciously) dishonest: he believed there was something of which to be scared.

A turnip-ghost.

So what was a turnip-ghost, and why was it scary?

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The term “turnip-ghost” is not much used nowadays.

But the thing to know about a turnip-ghost is that (some) people believed it was real.

Just as Dickens says of Marley being dead, to begin with:

This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

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A turnip-ghost is (or was) an English form of the “Jack-o-Lantern”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines turnip-ghost as:

“a simulated ghost or apparition of which the head is formed by a turnip-lantern”

which in turn is defined as:

the hollowed rind of a turnip employed as a lantern; also as a term of abuse”.

And it certainly was a term of abuse.

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Back in the days when all popular authors seemed to use initials, the turnip-ghost was a frequently used image.

In addition to A.J.P. Taylor, there were –

C.S. Lewis in 1942, on whether devils are engaged in the disinter­ested pursuit of something called Evil:

“Mine have no use for any such turnip ghost. Bad angels, like bad men, are entirely practical. They have two motives. The first is fear of punishment…Their second motive is a kind of hunger.”

G.B. Shaw in 1887, of Tosca:

“an old-fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker”

And, more sensibly, G.K. Chesterton in 1905, of the (then) modern age:

“If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips.”

It is a pity that such a fine phrase is no longer a commonplace.

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So what does a turnip-ghost look like?

From the web we can see the following fine example:

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That picture is from the Melbourne Review of Books, who also helpfully provide a recipe for creating such a thing, assuring us:

“The white colour gives it a nice skull-like look.”

See: far more scary – and more skull-like – than any pumpkin.

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In Scotland, they have an equivalent “tumshie lantern”.

A quick Google image search show these to be far more frightening than their pumpkin cousins:

Tumshie-ghosts

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Hallowe’en has long ceased to be genuinely about anything which unsettles anyone, that is if it ever did.

So just be happy you will see loads of smiling friendly pumpkins today, and be very glad you do not encounter a turnip-ghost.

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Adapted from my June post.  Thanks to Helen Ross and others on Twitter for information on tunip-ghosts and tumshie-lanterns.

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2 thoughts on “What is a “turnip-ghost”? A post for Hallowe’en”

  1. May I recommend an image search on the Swiss term Räbeliechtli (Räbe means turnip and Liechtli means a little light). The children go out with these a bit later in the year, though. I am not an expert but I saw them in St. Gallen in November a few years ago.

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