I understand that the word spook is a racial slur that rose in usage during WWII; I also know Germans called black gunners Spookwaffe. What I don't understand is why.

Spook seems to also mean 'ghost' in German. Did the Americans call them spooks because the Germans did? If so, why did the Germans call them that? Or, if the Germans called them that because Americans called them spooks, then why did the Americans call them that? And how did Americans know the Germans had a nickname for black gunners?

  • Interesting question; sources seem to differ about the details of the etymology.
    – alphabet
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 2:35
  • At a guess it may have arisen because dark skin is harder to see at night. Only a guess, so not an answer.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 4:26
  • 'Ghost' is the primary meaning of spook in English. Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 6:45
  • 1
    I don't think Spookwaffe was a German nickname, I think it was a derogatory nickname used by whites. "When they were initially deployed in Europe, they were initially ignored and often called the "Spookwaffe"" -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowell_Steward
    – tgdavies
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 12:31
  • 3
    "I also know Germans called black gunners Spookwaffe" -- how do you know this?
    – tgdavies
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 12:31

1 Answer 1


Spook was actually used by black people to refer to white people, presumably on the notion of “white” ghosts.

spook n. [SE spook, a ghost]

  1. (US black) a white person.
  • 1939 [US] P.E. Miller Down Beat’s Yearbook of Swing n.p.: spook: a white musician.
  • 1944 [US] D. Burley Orig. Hbk of Harlem Jive 19: Us young homes, and lanes and hipstuds, gray and fay, and spook and spade.

(Green’s Dictionary of slang)

As for its usage about black people, Etymonline suggests that:

The derogatory racial sense of "black person" is attested from 1945, perhaps from the notion of dark skin being difficult to see at night.

The following article from the Newsweek.com has an interesting story on how the term spook was initially used to refer to black people:

According to Merriam-Webster, the word "spooky" is defined as, "relating to, resembling or suggesting spooks." A further break-down of "spook" gives way to the meaning, "ghost, specter" or "an undercover agent: spy." But the Dutch word describing apparitions, which first came into use around the 19th century, took on a more sinister meaning around World War II, when white American soldiers started referring to their Black counterparts as "spooks."

Originally, pilots of the Tuskegee Institute—derived of the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps—were called the "Spookwaffe"—a play on the German term "waffe," which means weapon or gun. When airmen returned from their posts with the nickname, white Americans caught wind of the name and began linking the term "spook" to blackness, thus resulting in the word transitioning into a racial slur and its derogatory use.

  • 3
    "Spookwaffe" looks like a play on "Luftwaffe", the German word for "Air Force".
    – tgdavies
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 12:34

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