Ghosts, magic crystals, faeries, homeopathy, Bigfoot, astrology, and the like are all examples of woo-woo or woo. But why are they called that? When and where does the term come from?

We can answer when, but why remains a mystery.

Belief in woo is a problem. Joel Garreau, writing for the Washington Post in 2001, summed it up:

Today’s supply of woo-woo is certainly remarkable, however. At no time in human history has scientific rationality so thoroughly underpinned our society and the world’s economy.

The earliest I have been able to trace the term is to a 20 June 1986 article in the Seattle Times:

But Gibson says there is ample evidence — both scientific and subjective — that crystals can help in healing and transformation. “You can say it’s woo-woo,’’ she says with a laugh. “But it works. I go with what works.’’ And even if it doesn’t work, that’s not any reason to dismiss a practice entirely, she says.

But as to how or why the term came about, like so many skeptical answers, the conclusion is “origin unknown.” Some have suggested that woo-woo is imitative of the sound of a theremin, used to provide the musical score to many classic sci-fi and horror films. Others have suggested that it is derivative of Curly’s, of Three Stooges fame, iconic cry, perhaps used by mental health workers to classify the rantings of their patients. But there is no evidence for any of these explanations.

Barrett, Grant. A Way With Words. 11 April 2005.

Garreau, Joel. “Science’s Mything Links.” Washington Post, 23 July 2001, C1–C2.

Ostrom, Carol M. “In the Spirit — New Age Adherents Follow a Personal Path.” Seattle Times, 20 June 1986, E1.

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