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Zombies! A Word That’s Always Lurching Around

\r\n\r\nVampires get a lot of press these days, but you can't keep their undead brethren-the zombies-down.\r\n\r\nDespite lacking an air force and navy,...




Vampires get a lot of press these days, but you can't keep their undead brethren-the zombies-down.

Despite lacking an air force and navy, the zombie army is always on the march, especially in pop culture. Zombie movies include Reanimator, Shaun of the Dead, Evildead 2, Night of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, and a bazillion others. I can't keep track of all the zombie-focused humor books out there, like The Zombie Survival Guide and Zombie Haiku. Even Jane Austen isn't safe, what with the recent revision of her work called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And if President Obama needs to take the nation's mind off our metric boatload of problems, maybe he could distract us by emulating his fictional counterpart in the comic book President Evil, in which the Obamanator goes Terminator on the zombie menace.

But zombies have a hold on more than our movie screens and Presidential fantasies: zombies are used metaphorically in many ways, and the word "zombie" has a history predating the horror movies we know so well. If you don't mind the drooling and lumbering, "zombie" is a useful, specific monkey wrench in the tool box of language.

Much recent zombie lingo comes from the techie scene. Though we're used to thinking of zombies as saying "Must eat brains," when it comes to zombie cell phone networks-or botnets-zombie-ese sounds more like, "A very sexy girl. Try it now!" That artless come-on is a text message suckering you into downloading spam software that sends out the same message, until eventually all our cell phones are reduced to annoying, spammy, sleazy zombie drones. This sense of "zombie" is similar to "zombie computer," which has similarly been possessed by a spam-type, shenanigans-causing program.

The ongoing economic pickle has attracted a few zombie terms too: A zombie bank is no longer capable of lending money, as it is deeply in debt, only staying afloat through the zombie-master-like powers of the federal government. Similarly, zombie companies are, as Kate Haywood wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "...firms that generate little or no profit for their shareholders because they are unable to access the capital markets for fresh funding to help them grow out of crippling debt piles. They exist purely to serve the interests of their lenders by repaying the debt." Then there's "zombie debt"-crooked companies will buy up old debts that can't be enforced (because of bankruptcy, for example) and then try to collect. A telemarketer chortling "It's aliiiive!" is not a great way to begin the day.

Even the animal kingdom isn't zombie-free. The headline "Zombie caterpillars controlled by voodoo wasps" sounds like something I just made up, but it comes straight from the pages of New Scientist, in a story about how parasitic wasp larvae take possession of cuddly caterpillars in a very Evildead-ish fashion. Wasp larvae work a similar bad mojo on cockroaches, stinging them while keeping the bastards alive. This scary description by Nora Shultz almost makes me feel sorry for the roaches: "The cockroach sits still while the wasp's larva hatches, chews a hole into its belly, and slowly eats its living host from the inside over a period of eight days." Man, I hate when that happens.

A smattering of other meanings have lumbered across the landscape of language over the years. In World War II, Canadian draftees were referred to as zombies, playing on the unwilling nature of zombies and draftees, both of whom tend to be found in armies. Another way to make a zombie is to mix rum and fruit juice, in the case of the zombie drink. Since the thirties, "zombie" has also had the familiar meaning of "A dull, apathetic, or slow-witted person," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. That meaning is pretty close to the "tired person" sense, as in, "When I don't get at least 8 hours sleep, I am a zombie."

"Zombi" was the name of a snake-god worshipped by voodoo cults in West Africa and Haiti, before it came to mean a reanimated corpse. There have been several variations in meaning, all likely to give the heebie-jeebies, such as this 1872 quote: "Zombi, a phantom or a ghost, not unfrequently heard in the Southern States in nurseries and among the servants." The OED also has entries for "zombify," "zombified," and "zombification." I had never seen zombied before, but it's a synonym for zombified that's been used for awhile and continues to be. This 1972 use might be my favorite sentence I've quoted this year: "Humpy is frankly idiotic, re-succumbing to Nanny's world like a zombied dachshund." Poor Humpy.

So, whether a zombie is eating your brain, or your cell phone's brain, or your bank's autonomy, don't bother struggling against the undead menace. Just pour yourself a zombie, secure in the knowledge that even the cockroaches who will inherit the earth aren't immune.