Clearly popularized by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, “nosferatu” has appeared in numerous movies, song lyrics, and books. Researching nosferatu in our family library, I had trouble tracking down the origins of this term. Augustus Thyme, my grandfather, began the tradition of collecting an assortment of books on vampires and the occult, so I consider our library extensive on this subject. Along with some internet library research, I came up with a possible origin.
Stoker identified his source as British author, Emily Gerard, which she used the term in her travelogue, The Land Beyond the Forest in 1888. Note that transylvania is Latin for “through the forest.” In her travelogue, Gerard identifies nosferatu as a Romanian word for vampire: “More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in Heaven or Hell.”
However, nosferatu isn’t Romanian.
Earlier in 1865, the term also appeared in a German-language article by Wilhelm Schmidt discussing Transylvanian customs for an Austro-Hungarian magazine, according to Leonard Wolf in Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide (1997). It seems possible that Gerard could have come across Schmidt’s article while living in Austria-Hungary.
Perhaps nosferatu is based on the Greek word, “nosophoros” (νοσοφόρος), which means disease-bearing. The classic film, Nosferatu by Manau uses the disease theme, which may persuade modern opinion on the Greek origin. There may be a connection, but I can’t find any evidence between the Greek word and Gerard’s Romanian reference. The romance languages borrowed a few words from Greek, so there is a possibility. Even if so, what word in Romanian did nosferatu refer to?
More likely, the term is a misinterpretation of sounds or spelling across languages Denis Buican in Dracula et ses Avatars: de Vlad l’Empaleur à Staline et Ceausescu (1991) and Manuela Dunn-Mascetti in Vampire: the Complete Guide to the World of the Undead (1992) suggest two similar Romanian terms as candidates: nesuferitu and nefârtatu, based on necurat and nesuferit, respectively. Nesuferitu refers to the occult as “the unclean,” and nefârtatu is “the insufferable one” for the devil.
While reading old books in our library, I’ve noticed how easy it is for meaning or spelling to alter when translated from other languages. My money is on nosferatu originally referred to nefârtatu, the devil, and taken by Gerard to refer to a very evil creature, a vampire.
The “devil is in the detail” if only we could truly know it.
Resources Listed on Google Books:
- Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide; Wolf, Leonard (1997)
- Dracula et ses Avatars: de Vlad l’Empaleur à Staline et Ceausescu; Buican, Denis (1991)
- The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania; Gerard, Emily (1888)
- Vampire: the Complete Guide to the World of the Undead; Dunn-Mascetti, Manuela (1994)