Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 70: A Halloween Special

This week on Grammar Grater, we'll be looking at words that have to do with Halloween, starting with the word Halloween itself.

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the 31st of October in the old Celtic calendar was the last day of the year, and it was believed to be a night when all the witches and warlocks were out.

This is corroborated in The Folklore of World Holidays. The Druids believed that the dead came back to visit the living every 31 October. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III appropriated this observance and moved it to November 1, creating the day known as All Saints' Day. The day before became known as All Hallows' Eve, and since the Middle Ages, this date has been associated with witches and sorcerers.

Fast-forward to 1745: According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by that year it was recorded in Scotland that All Hallows' Eve had been reduced to its current name. MPR News' arts reporter Euan Kerr, a Glasgow native, sheds more light on the topic.

"People tend to slur things together," Kerr says, "so we would start out with All Hallows' Evening then All Hallows' E'en and it eventually became Halloween."

It's important to note that Halloween can also be spelled Hallowe'en, which more strongly acknowledges the word's heritage. "That's the way I've always done it," Kerr adds. "Occasionally it gets picked up by spell-checkers. But there should be an apostrophe there if you're going to be right."

Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote an epic poem called "Tam o' Shanter" that was influenced by Celtic traditions. "It's the story of a man who, coming home late drunk from the pub, encounters a witches' sabbath," Kerr says. "He is chased by this hideous group of people, led though by an extremely attractive young woman who is the witch. And she wears this cut-up piece of material which is kind of an undershirt, which was called the cutty sark."

The poem left marks on the language that extend beyond witches and Halloween. The clipper ship, Cutty Sark, took its name from the poem. "It had a tin cutout of the vest stuck on the mast for its namesake," Kerr says. "And the ship, of course, inspired the name of the very popular whisky."

Back to Halloween, the jack o'lantern refers to a pumpkin that has been hollowed and carved with a face. A candle is placed inside to illuminate the face at night. According to Brewer's Dictionary again, the term jack o'lantern was taken from another term for what's commonly known as will o' the wisp — scientific name ignis fatuus — which is the phosphorescent light seen near marshes, thought to be given off by decaying vegetation. The light of the pumpkin's glowing face suggested the ostensibly magical light of will o' the wisp to people, so they applied the name jack o' lantern to the pumpkin. Other magic-sounding names for will o' the wisp include: elf-fire, friar's lantern, peg lantern, kit o' the can[dle]stick, walking fire, fair maid of Ireland or John in the wad.

As for trick or treat, Brewer's says it is a Halloween custom of American origin, wherein kids threaten a prank if not given sweets. Brewer's qualifies this by explaining, "In most cases the latter is proffered and the former rarely realized."

Folklore of American Holidays describes trick or treat as a recent phenomenon, having originated in the 20th century. But the book does suggest the practice may have its roots in the Celtic holiday of Samhain or Samhuinn, where it was customary to give cakes to the poor. Others attribute it to the English Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, when at one time ploughmen begged for gifts from landowners—lunch, perhaps?—with the threat that failure to give a gift would result in the ploughmen using their ploughs to damage the landowner's property.

And it turns out there may be some Scots influence again. Euan Kerr says guising is a Halloween custom in Scotland where children go from house to house in costume "usually to perform something: a song, cast a riddle, tell a joke, and the tradition is to receive money—a small coin—or more recently, sweets of some kind."

Kerr describes that trick-or-treating has been supplanting guising in recent years, possibly the effect of marketing efforts on the part of big corporations. Folklore of American Holidays seems to support this big-business influence, citing an unnamed US sociologist who asserted that trick or treat has little traditional heritage and that it is merely a "rehearsal for consumership."

Alternatively, another source suggested the spread of trick-or-treating outside the United States and Canada could be traced to the global popularity of the film ET, which includes a lengthy trick-or-treating scene.

Sources: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 17th edition, edited by John Ayto; The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart; Folklore of World Holidays, 2nd edition, edited by Robert H. Griffin; Folklore of American Holidays, 3rd edition, edited by Tristram Potter Coffin; Oxford Dictionary of Current English

Music from this Episode: "Carnival of Souls" by Combustible Edison; "Somebody's Crying" by Chris Isaak

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