What Does “Ouija” Mean? A Curious Etymology

I’d always thought the meaning behind the name Ouija was simple. “Ouija” – the French “Oui” and the German “Ja,” both words meaning “Yes,” put together into one odd-sounding name for a spirit board. That’s what I’d been told, anyway.

As it turns out, the truth is far more fascinating.

The Ouija chose its own name

The commercial board game Ouija, while not the first spirit, or talking, board by any means, came into existence with a patent filed on May 28, 1890. You can view it here.

“The objects of the invention are to produce a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions of any kind and having them answered by the device used and operated by the touch of the hand, so that the answers are designated by letters on a board.” – U.S. Patent US446054

Before that happened, though, the board required a name. So the investors of the Kennard Novelty Company, the creators of what would ultimately become known as the Ouija, got together one night to ask the board itself.

The proceedings were led by Elijah J. Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters. Bond was one of the investors, an attorney, and Peters was apparently known as a spirit medium. The perfect person to guide a conversation with the other side.

According to Smithsonian and Ouija expert Robert Murch, that night they asked the board a very simple question: What did it want to be called? “Ouija,” it answered. Easy as that. For good measure, they asked the board what Ouija meant, and it spelled out “Good luck.”

An answer, or a warning?

In the original patent, the board is referred to as both the Ouija and the “Egyptian luck-board.” However, if you notice, the patent doesn’t say much about how the board actually functions, only how it’s used and the way it’s set up.

Some believe that the board is more likely channeling our own subconscious thoughts rather than spirits, but either are a possibility, and either are just as fascinating.

I mention this because, as it would turn out, it may very well have been Helen Peters’ subconscious thoughts that actually named the Ouija that night in 1890. She would later admit that, during their spirited get-together, she had been wearing a locket, inside which was the picture of a woman. The word “Ouija” – presumably the woman’s name – was written above her.

Somewhere within the recesses of Peters’ mind, that name floated about. And, perhaps, it came through as they used their talking board. (As Smithsonian points out, it’s also possible that “Ouija” was actually “Ouida,” the pseudonym of English novelist Maria Louise Ramé, and that Peters had simply misread it.)

Be Careful

Image: E. J. Bond Ouija Board Patent

Nowadays, the Ouija board exists under the weight of decades and decades of lore and legend, from the fantastic (in movies) to the allegedly horrific (in encounters with demons and other unfortunate events).

To take a brief macabre turn here, one of the board’s early “victims” may have been William Fuld, who eventually became owner of the Kennard Novelty Company. Fuld was said to regularly use the Ouija himself, and when it told him to build a new factory, he obliged. It was at that factory, in 1927, that he’d die in an apparent freak accident.

He fell from the roof while leaning against a support. But the fall didn’t kill him. He died when, by odd chance, one of his fractured ribs burst open his heart.

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ve always found it funny how something considered to be so evil or, at best, unpredictable, can be found on the shelves of toy stores. A children’s board game.

Then again, as many would tell you, it’s not so much the board itself that matters, but rather what it symbolizes, and what it unlocks within ourselves.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.

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