21st October 2021
Half term is just around the corner. Nights are drawing in, leaves are turning red, and pumpkins are starting to appear on people’s doorsteps… It must be nearly Halloween! Let’s take a look at some spooky words from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Halloween and saints
Let’s begin by delving into the word Halloween itself. In the old Celtic calendar, the new year began on 1st November, and the last evening of October was ‘old-year’s night’, the night of all the witches. As Christianity spread, the Church transformed the celebration into All-Hallow-Even (or the Eve of All Hallows’– or All Saints’– Day). Hallow is related to the word ‘holy’ and is an old word for ‘saint’, and even is an archaic version of word ‘evening’. An interesting etymology for a night we associate with spookiness rather than saintliness!
Jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins, and punkies
Pumpkin lanterns are perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Halloween these days, the more fearsome the carving the better. In North America, the more common term is Jack-o-lantern: ‘a lantern made by hollowing out a pumpkin (or occasionally swede, etc.) and cutting a design into the rind, often one representing the facial features’. Although Jack-o-lantern in this sense dates back to 1837, the word was first used to refer to will-o’-the-wisp, ‘a phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night over marshy ground’. When you’re out trick or treating, can you see a resemblance?
Similarly, in Somerset people make punkies or punkie lanterns: lanterns made by setting a candle in a hollowed-out mangel-wurzel or similar vegetable. Punkie night, on which punkies are displayed and paraded, is usually celebrated on the last Thursday of October, and a traditional song is sung:
‘It’s Punkie Night tonight
It’s Punkie Night tonight
Adam and Eve would not believe
It’s Punkie Night tonight.’
Ghastly ghosts and gruesome ghouls
But back to Halloween. What’s your Halloween costume this year? Perhaps you’ll try your hand at dressing as a ghoul:
Originally in Arabic folklore: an evil spirit that dwells in a cemetery or other lonely or deserted place, esp. one preying on corpses or luring humans to death in order to consume them. In later use more generally: a frightening or malign supernatural being, typically having an appetite for human flesh, and the appearance of a grotesque or bestial humanoid.
Or perhaps you prefer the simplicity of a white sheet with some eyeholes cut into it. Have you ever wondered why we spell ghost with a ‘gh’ rather than just a ‘g’? Well, we didn’t always. Before the printing press was brought to England in the late 1400s, the word was most often spelled gost. The silent ‘h’ is largely the legacy of two printers with connections to the Netherlands, Caxton and de Worde, who were probably influenced by the Middle Dutch word gheest. Ironically, in modern Dutch you would write geest.
If a ghost costume isn’t really your thing, perhaps you’d rather be a ghostbuster? You might be surprised to know that ghostbuster is in the OED – and even more surprised to learn that it is much older than the 1984 film:
A person who investigates or deals with supposed paranormal activity or phenomena; spec. (originally) a sceptic who exposes bogus claims of paranormal activity or abilities; (now often) a person who claims to be able to eliminate or capture ghosts, poltergeists, etc.
Our first quotation is from Time magazine in 1930:
Wilhelmina Houdini has waited three and one-half years for word from her late husband Harry, magician and ghostbuster. Before he died he promised to communicate with her from the grave if possible.
Trick or treat!
Now to the main event. We may think of trick-or-treating as a fairly modern pastime, but people have been trick-or-treating for nearly a hundred years. In fact, although many of us assume it originated in the US, our evidence suggests it actually came from Canada. Our earliest evidence is for the phrase trick or treat itself:
1927 Calgary (Alberta) Daily Herald 3 Nov. 22/4 [Referring to Halloween in Blackie, Alberta.] The very young..wandered in droves from door to door, heavily disguised and demanding ‘trick or treat.’ To treat was to be untricked.
But the etymology in our entry includes an earlier use of the form treat or trick from 1924, and a 1923 quotation, while not using the phrase itself, suggests that the practice may have taken place even earlier:
1923 Morning Leader (Regina, Sask.) 2 Nov. 3/5 Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here. ‘Treats‘ not ‘tricks‘ were the order of the evening.
And on that note, have a very happy Halloween full of treats.
Kirsty Dunbar is a Senior Editor for the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world. Find out how to access the OED here.