The Origin of Halloween Words

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what we can discover.

Last year, at this time, I took a look at a variety of names used for haunted houses around the country. This year, let’s talk about some of the vocabulary associated with Halloween. I wasn’t sure how we got a few of these words, so I researched a little etymology to share with you today.

Halloween. You may know this as a shortening of “All Hallows’ Evening” (“e’en” means “evening”). But what is hallow? What is All Hallows’ Evening? And who gave us this word?

If you’ve ever heard, or memorized, the “Lord’s Prayer” from the King James Version of the Bible, you’ve heard the word “hallowed”: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Hallowed derives from Old English and means holy. But the word hallow can also be a noun meaning a holy person or saint.

All Hallows’ Day (now known as All Saints’ Day) was established by the Catholic Church to honor all Christian martyrs with a comprehensive feast and holy day. The date of November 1 was fixed onto the church calendar by Pope Gregory IV in the 9th century. So the day before, October 31, was All Hallows’ Eve.

Our familiar Halloween first appears in the mid-18th century, as a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening in Scotland. October 31 was already the last day on the Celtic calendar and designated as a night for witches, so the development of Halloween as a spooky holiday preceding a day to honor saints made complete sense in a region with Celtic origins and the Christian religion.

Jack-o'-lantern
By Nicubunu (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Jack o’lantern. I’ve always wondered: Who’s Jack and what does he have to do with pumpkins?

As a matter of fact, jack o’lantern was originally a name for “atmospheric ghost lights” seen by people at night above swamps and marshes. There were old tales to explain the phenomenon of a light shining above the water and retreating upon a person’s approach.

One is the Irish story of a man known as “Drunk Jack” or “Stingy Jack.” Jack makes a deal with the Devil, selling his soul for payment of his tab at the pub. (That’s one big bar tab.) When the Devil comes to collect, Jack tricks the Devil from getting his soul, rebuffing him with a cross.

But that doesn’t mean Jack gets into Heaven; he’s way too wayward for that. When Jack dies and travels to Hell, the Devil won’t let him in there either. In fact, he’s still angry about Jack’s trickery and condemns Jack to wander the earth forever, giving him a burning coal from Hell’s fire to light his way. Jack places the light in a carved turnip (okay, let’s say pumpkin) to serve as a lantern. Thus, Jack of the Lantern: Jack o’lantern.

By the way, science has a better explanation for those ghost lights that involves “the oxidation of phosphine (PH3), diphosphane (P2H4), and methane (CH4).” As for the rest of that explanation, my eyes glazed over while reading it. I like the Drunk Jack version better.

Trick-or-treat. Trick-or-treating evolved from a European practice in the 14th century, which has its origins even earlier in pagan practices dating to the 10th century. In preparation for All Saints Day, Christians went door-to-door soliciting gifts of food in exchange for prayers for the dead.

Fast forward to 1930s America. Children are now the collectors of food–in the form of candy–and some take their solicitation of favors very seriously. “Trick or treat” becomes a phrase used by candy collectors as a Mafia-like shakedown with kids demanding candy (the treat) or else they’ll retaliate with pranks (the trick). Indeed, The Reno Evening Gazette mentions Nevada children employing this method in 1938:

“Trick or treat was the slogan employed by Halloween pranksters who successfully extracted candy fruit from Reno residents. In return the youngsters offered protection against window soaping and other forms of annoyance.”

Thankfully, I don’t know of any children who now soap windows or egg houses or whatever if they don’t get candy. There’s usually plenty of candy to be had, so the tricks simply aren’t necessary. In answer to “trick or treat?” we adults happily throw sweet treats at costumed kids. And then we parents eat our share when our children aren’t looking or before they can count just how many packages of M&Ms they had.

Do you celebrate Halloween? What plans do you have for this holiday? Did you know the origins of these Halloween words?

Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; Online Etymology Dictionary; Wikipedia; The Phrase Finder; Mental Floss – 7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered!