A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

In hide-and-seek, why is home base sometimes called "ghouls" or "goose"?

Dear Straight Dope:

We are in need of your vast knowledge of word origins. During an informal survey of co-workers at a local Ren Faire, we discovered that, depending upon where a person grew up, there were a great variety of names used for the "safe area" in games such as tag and hide-and-seek. Many of these words such as "home," "safe," goal," and "base" were fairly self-explanatory. Two words, however, have us stumped.

The first is "goose." This word was recalled by only a few people. They were all from the same area of the same city. None of them had any idea how their "safe area" came to be named after a bird.

The second word is pronounced, if not spelled, "ghouls." It's a bit more widespread that "goose." (I've heard examples of it being used in a few local cities and towns.) Use of it also dates back to at least the 1940s.

I am inclined to believe that both "goose" and "ghouls" are mutated versions of the word "goals," which somehow acquired local common usage. I am, I admit, kind of hoping that you know of some more obscure meaning to these words.

P.S. I don't think that "ghouls" has anything to do with overly morbid people. (Just wanted to let you know that I'm not so clueless as to not realize that ghouls is an actual word.)

SDStaff Entropy replies:

We here at the SDSAB would never leap to any conclusions about your cluelessness, Mikey. We'd wait till we got to know you first. Anyway, you asked a two-part question, and I'll answer in two parts. First, the word 'goose.' Cracking open the holy OED (Oxford English Dictionary to you shlubs), we find quite a few definitions for goose and all its derivatives. Naturally, first and foremost is our feathered friend, a web-footed member of the sub-family Anserinæ (from the family Anatidæ, natch). Some of the other variations include a foolish person; a game played on a board with counters; a tailor's smoothing iron; and to poke a person in a sensitive part, especially the genital or anal regions. Hmm, I don't think I want to play tag with those people. In all likelihood, 'goose' is a some local bit of vernacular, peculiar to a particular neighborhood in a particular city. Still, be careful if they want to play Blind Man's Bluff, you never know what you might be letting yourself in for.

Ghoul is just as strange. Ghouls, the OED says, are evil spirits supposed to rob graves and prey on human corpses. Even if we consider that ghoul might be a corruption of 'gaol,' that's still a term for a prison and seems contradictory to the idea of a safe base. Either way, I think when playing tag with this crew, I wanna be 'it.' For what it's worth, Straight Dope subhoncho Ed Zotti says home base in his 1950s Chicago neighborhood was called 'ghoul' (like you he assumed it was a corruption of 'goal'), so this term was pretty widespread.

What it seems to boil down to are different colloquialisms for different areas. Within 100 miles of where I live, a sandwich you get from a deli is either called, depending on which direction you live in, a sub, a grinder, or a hero. Go figure.

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