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Like a banshee

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Jan. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 15 January 2000.