Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster


My latest column in the Malaysia Star is about the language of zombies. Aarrgurrggghhhhhh!

The word “zombie” means a person who has come back from the dead and is now walking the Earth. Arising out of the religions brought by African slaves to the New World, the word traces it roots back to the religions of that continent more than 200 years ago.

In the earliest French writings, the zombi, as it was usually spelled, is simply called a spirit or a powerful being.

Travelling along with the word in English, however, has long been the idea that a zombie is mindless and not altogether itself.

For example, someone can be said to behave like a zombie if they don’t show emotion, if they seem uninterested or unengaged in life, or if they seem to be very tired.

A zombie can also be anybody who is loyal to someone or something in an unthinking way, such as someone who follows a sports team slavishly (meaning they think everything their favourite team does is interesting). If you buy every book written by a favourite author, you might be said to be zombie-like in your devotion.

A zombie is also someone who does the same task repetitively, such as eat one pastry after another without really enjoying it or thinking much about it. A zombie could also be someone who spends too much time playing computer games.

Someone who does a lot of illegal drugs, especially to the point of addiction, is often called a zombie, or at least zombie-like, because there is often something crude and primitive about their behaviour and because their minds are adversely affected. They cannot, in short, think straight.

In Canada, during World War II, a zombie was someone who was conscripted into the military but only to serve inside Canada and not overseas. Of course, every country needs a force to protect its borders, but this duty was seen as somehow less honourable than overseas service. The idea was that they weren’t real men – they only appeared to be the same as other men. This was intended to be insulting.

As you can see, being called a zombie isn’t very flattering. There are some more or less neutral uses, though.

A zombie process, for example, is a background computer program that appears to still be running but isn’t really. That is, it shows up in a list of currently operating software, but it’s not really active. This plays off the idea of a zombie as something that looks alive but isn’t.

A zombie is also a computer that is controlled by illicit or illegal software or by a secret, remote administrator. It is made to do things like send the computer’s information to a distant thief or to send lots of illegal e-mail. It’s like a zombie because it is controlled by an evil outside force.

In the finance world, zombie debt is money that was once owed to a company which, for whatever reason, it stopped trying to collect. Years later, however, that debt resurfaces, usually when the company is bought over and the new owner intends to collect on the debt anew. So, it starts badgering (bothering) the original debtor to make payments. A zombie debt, then, is one that has come back from the dead.

Elsewhere in business, a zombie is a company that is able to pay its bills and service its debt (meaning, make regular payments on money it has borrowed), but it is not able to borrow sufficiently to make improvements and grow, nor does it seem like a good prospect for a takeover. Its debts are too high.

A variant of this zombie company is one that is basically bankrupt but is kept alive by banks which are unwilling to acknowledge that they will never get back the money they loaned the business.

None of these zombies, of course, are as exciting as the ones in the movies.

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Grant Barrett