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TWTS: Hunting for grounds once haunted

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The places one haunts are often not haunted, unless one haunts haunted houses. Even then, it’s not entirely clear whether there are ghosts and spirits hanging around, or if it’s just a house that gets a lot of visitors.

Apparitions aside, we recently got a question about “haunting grounds” vs. “hunting grounds.” A listener wanted to know if you were visiting the neighborhood where you grew up, looking at the places where you used to spend time, would you call them your old “haunting grounds” or “hunting grounds”?

Let’s start with the verb “haunt.” It comes into English from French in the 1200s with a couple of meanings that we don’t use anymore — “to practice habitually” and “to use habitually.” At that time, “haunt” also meant “to frequent” or “to be much about a place,” a meaning that we still use.

Another earlier meaning was “to frequent the company of someone” or “to habitually associate” with someone. For example, you could haunt a certain minister of state — yet another meaning that isn’t used much today.

By the 1500s, the verb “haunt” could be used figuratively to refer to “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. In particular, it could describe memories, cares, feelings, etc. We still use “haunt” this way today, typically to refer to not-so-happy things: “The decision would haunt him for the rest of his life.”

The use of “haunt” to refer to the frequent visits of spiritual beings or ghosts emerged in the late 1500s. The first examples come from Shakespeare, such as, “O monstrous! Oh strange! We are haunted,” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Getting back to our listener’s question, the saying was originally “haunting grounds.” Someone at some point probably misheard it as “hunting grounds,” and the phrase just caught on.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.