How to talk about zombies: walkers, lurkers, geeks, and more
The Walking Dead, the zombie show and comic book source that follow several groups of survivors as they navigate a post-apocalyptic Georgia, has made a mark in the world of zombie fiction thanks to a gritty, realistic take on day-to-day survival in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead is often cited as a fresh slant on the zombie genre, and the creators have made interesting choices when it comes to referring to the reanimated corpses at the heart of the show: the zombies. But before looking at the language choices made by The Walking Dead’s creators, it is worth having a look at the strange, multicultural history of the word zombie.
The history of zombie
The word zombie first referred to a snake-deity in voodoo cults of West Africa and Haitian origin. The first citation currently in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the word zombie is found in Robert Southey’s History of Brazil: “Zombi, the title whereby he [the chief] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue… NZambi is the word for Deity.” While the exact etymology is unclear, this meaning of zombie, referring to a divine spirit, eventually came to refer to a ghost or phantom in parts of the Caribbean and southern United States. Due to its association with voodoo cults in those areas, zombie came to refer to a corpse that has been reanimated with witchcraft.
The introduction of the word zombie into mainstream American culture is usually credited to journalist William Seabrook, whose 1929 book The Magic Island featured sensationalized accounts of personal zombie slaves in the voodoo cults of Haiti. That book, in turn, inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which depicted zombies as the mindless underlings of a magician. It actually wasn’t until 1968, with the release of George A. Romero’s landmark film Night of the Living Dead, that moviegoers encountered the zombies that we know (and sometimes love) today. Reanimated corpses with a taste for human flesh, Romero’s zombies exhibit no rational thought, spread their infection through bites, and demonstrate, with their shambling lethargic gait, a distinct lack of coordination.
A far cry from White Zombie’s henchmen, how exactly Romero’s monsters ended up being called zombies is still unclear. For even though Romero subsequently used the word zombie in interviews about the film and in the scripts of his later zombie films, the word zombie appears nowhere in his script for Night of the Living Dead, which refers to the corpses as ghouls instead. What is clear, though, is that Romero’s film established a new sort of monster movie, and with it, an entire folklore of the zombie. The world we live in today is littered with the living dead, seen everywhere from romantic comedies (Warm Bodies) to adaptations of classic novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Walkers, lurkers, and roamers
Looking back to The Walking Dead, one of the conspicuous elements of the story’s fictional universe (both in the comic books and the television series), is the lack of any widespread cultural awareness of zombies. In fact, characters use the word zombie just a handful of times. In interviews, the comic book creator Robert Kirkman has noted that zombie folklore in the fictional universe of The Walking Dead is practically nonexistent, which explains not just the survivors’ struggle to comprehend what is happening, but also the near absence of the word zombie. More often than not, the characters resort to other terms when referring to the reanimated corpses, such as walkers, lurkers, roamers, floaters, dead ones, monsters, and geeks.
Some of those terms, such as lurkers and floaters, are used to refer to specific types of zombie. Lurkers refer to those zombies that attack by playing dead (doubly dead, if you will) and attacking only when their prey comes close enough. Floaters (or swimmers) refer to zombies in a body of water, such as the zombie that several characters find at the bottom of a well in Season 2.
On the other hand, geek, a term used by several characters, comes with its own rich history. In the carnival world, geek once referred to a performer whose act consisted of bizarre or disgusting acts, such as biting the heads off chickens. Hence, a geek might be understood as a person willing to eat anything – in other words, a zombie.
Biters and lame-brains
Given their isolation, it should come as no surprise that the different groups of survivors develop their own shorthand vernacular when referring to the zombies. For instance, the survivors in Rick Grimes’s group most frequently use the word walker, while the inhabitants of Woodbury (first appearing in Season 3 of the TV series) demonstrate a preference for the term biter. When Rick encounters two men who have traveled down from Philadelphia to Georgia in Season 2, they respond appreciatively when they hear him use the word walker. “That’s good. I like that. I like that better than lamebrains,” one responds. “More succinct,” comments the other.
This multifaceted approach to language reflects the show’s realistic approach to the material. So as we enter Season 5, let’s prick up our ears to hear how the show plays with alternatives for zombie, especially when Rick and his group encounter new survivors.