Secondary English – Halloween Word Origins

Samhain: the seeds of fear
Hallowe’en has been and gone. Afraid? You should be. I’m standing right behind you. Not really (I’m under your bed).

These days (in the UK, at least), the main fear response triggered by Hallowe’en is parental anxiety over excessive snacking contributing to childhood obesity. However, to be fair, Hallowe’en’s historical roots were not as a festival of fear, but as a celebration of the end of the year and the beginning of the new. In the Old Celtic calendar the new year began in November, and the end of October was a night of celebration incorporating some traditions to honour the dead. There were good spirits to be wished safe passage to the afterlife, and evil spirits to be dodged, discouraged, or downright confused by disguising oneself as them. If the last point seems like an odd strategy, try to put yourself in the evil spirits’ shoes: can you predict how would you react if you went to a party only to find everyone else had come dressed as you?

The Celtic festival most chronologically aligned with Hallowe’en is Samhain (pronounced sow-inn) which means ‘summer’s end’. Historically, pagan and Christian festivals have often blended, and as November 1st was designated All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day, so October 31st became All Hallows’ Eve, or All-Hallow-Even (hallow is derived from the Old English hālgian, which is related to hālig, meaning holy, and even is a short form of evening). Thus the word Hallowe’en came to exist in the 1800s as a contracted form. Somewhere along the way its apostrophe was lost, and the generally accepted current form is Halloween.

The trick or treat tradition of children demanding sweets (sorry, candy) was popularized in the US in the 1940s, where Hallowe’en is a national institution. Householders may decorate their front porches with carved pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns, but woe betide those who don’t stump up with the treats. This practice was originally known as guising in Scotland and Ireland, where it is still popular, and still involves going from door to door in costume asking for candy (sorry, sweets) but without the added threat of retribution as an incentive. Turnips tend to be used rather than pumpkins (as they were in Celtic tradition) and eager participants go dooking rather than bobbing for apples.

The festival of Hallowe’en would be a good deal less colourful without its associated assortment of gruesome creatures of myth, such as ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. The constituent parts of this alliterative triple threat have their etymological origins in a variety of languages. For example, ghost comes from the Old English gāst, which is related to Old Frisian jēst, the Old High German geist meaning ‘spirit’, and the Sanskrit hēda, meaning ‘fury’ or ‘anger’. Goblin comes from Old French and from the Middle High German kobolt, whereas ghouls (evil demons thought to eat human bodies, either stolen corpses or children) come from the Arabic ghūl (from ghāla, meaning ‘he seized’). And the much-maligned word witch is derived from the Old English wicca, which is related to the Middle Low German wicken (meaning ‘to conjure’) and the Swedish vicka (to move to and fro).

Hope you had a happy Hallowe’en, whether you chose to apostrophize or otherwise. And don’t have nightmares.

Duncan Black – Editor

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