Halloween is filled with ghouls and goblins, trick or treating, witches and pumpkins. But why is that? I thought I’d take a look at the origin of some of the words that have come to make Halloween the smorgasbord of fright.
But first, for the uninitiated, let’s take a look at how Halloween came to be in the first place:
Halloween can be traced back to Samhain, the ancient Celtic harvest festival honoring the Lord of the Dead. Observed on November 1 in the British Isles and parts of France, Samhain also marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Because it was a time of transition between the old and the new, the Celts believed that the souls of those who had died during the previous year gathered to travel together to the land of the dead and it was also a time when those who had died before that returned to visit their homes. November 1 was also considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. People lit bonfires to scare away evil spirits and “sacrificed” fruits and vegetables, hoping to appease the spirits of the deceased. Sometimes people disguised themselves in masks and costumes so that the visiting spirits would not recognize them. Charms, spells, and predictions of the future were all part of the eve of Samhain. In the old Celtic calendar, that last evening of October was “old-year’s night,” the night of all the witches.
When Christianity burgeoned, starting in the fourth century, pagan festivals like Samhain were very much frowned upon. However, the Celts would not give up their ancient rituals and symbols — so the Christian church gave them new names and meanings. November 1 became All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Day in England), by proclamation of Pope Boniface IV in the 7th century, a celebration of all the Christian saints. The evening before All Saints’ Day, October 31, became a holy, or hallowed, eve and thus All Hallows’ Eve (later Hallow-e’en, Hallowe’en, Halloween). Despite the name change, this holiday’s association with the supernatural persisted.
Now that we know the origin of the holiday, we have a little background to the etymology of the words. So without further ado, here are 10 spook-tacular Halloween words and how they came into existence.
Ghost comes from an Old English word gast/gost, “spirit, soul” and has related forms in other West Germanic languages. These related words appear to be connected with Sanskrit hea, “anger, fury.”
The word costume came to English via French from Italian for “fashion” or “custom, habit,” from Latin consuetudo/consuetudinem meaning “custom.”
Bonfire comes from the words bone and fire (“fire of bones”) and originally indicated a large open-air fire on which bones were burnt, either as a ceremony (like a funeral) or for burning heretics or banned books. The Halloween bonfires were lit to scare away evil spirits. Now, bonfires are a little more ubiquitous with their usage, from homecoming games to post-wedding beach celebrations.
Mask also made a trip through French (masque) from Italian maschera/mascara, perhaps from Latin masca, “evil spirit, witch.”
In Old English, witch was actually wicca and originally (c 890) was a man who practiced magic or sorcery, which we now call wizard. By the year 1000, witch came to be defined as “a female magician or sorceress.”
Goblin is from French and it may be related to the German Kobold, a mythological spirit who haunted homes and lived underground in caves and mines. Etymologists believe it may be related to Greek kobalos and to Latin Gobelinus, mischievous spirits. The goblin carries the connotation of being grotesque and ugly, evil and malicious. The ghost is just downright scary, being the supposed soul of a dead person.
Pumpkin — the large fruit of the plant Cucurbita Pepo — is a word evolved from the original English spelling of pompeon or pumpion or pompion to pumkin and finally to pumpkin. The word pompion came from Latin pepo/peponem from Greek pepon, “large melon, edible gourd,” from another word pepon, “cooked by the sun; ripe.” Another spelling variant is punkin.
A jack-o’-lantern (also jack-a-lantern) is a hollowed-out pumpkin, originally a turnip, carved into a demonic face and lit with a candle inside. Light from a candle inserted inside can be seen flickering through the jack-o’-lantern’s cutout eyes, nose, and usually grotesquely grinning mouth. Young boys used these hollowed-out and lit-up gourds to spook people. The custom originated in the British Isles, with a large turnip or other vegetable rather than a pumpkin. The original meaning of the word jack-o’-lantern was “night watchman” or “man with a lantern,” but it took on the Halloween sense by 1837, first in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. Legend has it that this use of jack-o’-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack, who thought he had tricked the devil. But the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light.
Irish immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern custom to North America, which is where pumpkins were first used to make the Halloween decorations.
9. Trick or Treat
The practice of donning a costume and asking for treats from your neighbors dates back to the Middle Ages. But back then it wasn’t a game.
During the medieval practice of souling, poor people would make the rounds begging for food. In return, they offered prayers for the dead on All Souls Day.
Modern trick or treating is a custom borrowed from guising, which children still do in some parts of Scotland. Guising involves dressing in costume and singing a rhyme, doing a card trick, or telling a story in exchange for a sweet. The Scottish and Irish brought the custom to America in the 19th century.
The earliest reference of the term “trick or treat” in print was in 1927, in Alberta, Canada. It appears as if the practice didn’t really take hold in the U.S. until the mid-1930s, where it was not always well received. The demanding of a treat angered or puzzled some adults.
10. Mischief Night, Goosey Night, Cabbage Night, Devil’s Night
Although the phrase trick or treat once implied a threat of mild vandalism, the tots who typically utter those words today are unlikely to engage in such behavior (for one thing, they are usually accompanied by their parents). Instead, in much of North America, the real tricks happen the night before Halloween, October 30, when teenagers smash pumpkins, throw eggs, and decorate trees with toilet paper. Depending on where you live, you may call the night of October 30 any of a variety of regional names: Mischief Night, Devil’s Night, Cabbage Night, Trick Night, Gate Night, and Goosey Night are all used in various parts of the United States.
The term Mischief Night is also known in northern England, where it similarly refers to a night on which young people indulge in pranks and vandalism, sometimes of a very serious nature. Originally, the English Mischief Night was April 30, the night before May Day, but more recently the term has been used in reference to the night of the 4 November, before Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Day, as well as to the night of October 30.
Bonus: Orange and Black
The colors associated with Halloween are black and orange. Orange, the color of the jack-o’-lantern, is a symbol of strength and endurance as well as of autumn and the harvest. Black is primarily a symbol of death and darkness. The black of a witch’s cloak and the black cat are reminders that Halloween was once a festival of the dead.