You probably already know what it means – a ‘denizen’ is an inhabitant of somewhere, or someone who goes to a place frequently (which means I’m a denizen of the Mason’s Arms in Bury St Edmunds).
I’ve chosen this one because I’ve been watching a lot of horror films and TV series recently (healthy), and it comes up loads in those. One case in point is ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ on Netflix. (It’s excellent, although I kept getting distracted by the beautiful cast and missing the background ghosts. The book it’s based on by Shirley Jackson is also well worth checking out, although it’s completely different to the TV show.) In an interview the creator Mike Flanagan said of the ghosts: ‘They are the denizens of Hill House from years past that the house decided to keep for itself.’ So, I thought I’d look into the etymology of the word and try to work out why, these days, it’s so often applied to things to do with hell, darkness and other supernatural scary-ass things.
Let’s start at the beginning. ‘Denizen’ comes from the Middle English word ‘denisein’ which in turn comes from the Old French word ‘denzein’, from ‘deinz’ for ‘within’, and ‘-ein’ from the Latin deintus or ‘from within’. (I think that makes it ‘within from within’. Useful.)
‘Denizen’ was also a British legal category between the 13th and 19th century, for a foreigner who has certain rights in their adopted country. ‘Denization’ has since been overtaken by ‘naturalisation’, maybe because of its infernal connotations…?
As to why it comes up so often in horror films and literature, well, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe because ‘denizen of hell’ sounds more sinister than ‘occupant of hell’?