I hope you have an enjoyable and suitably spooky day today, whether you’re dressing up, trick or treating, or staying in with some horror movies. To celebrate, I’m going to have a look at some of the words we associate with this day.
Hallowe’en: Surprisingly enough, this is actually a Christian word (though not too surprising when you consider that many Christian feast days were deliberately timed to coincide with pre-Christian festivals). 1st November is a Christian holiday, All Saint’s Day. Or, if you prefer, All Hallow’s Day, with hallow being an old word for saint. The evening before this day, 31st October, became known as All Hallow’s Eve, or All Hallow Even, just as Christmas Eve is the day before Christmas Day. It was obviously a short step from there to Hallowe’en, and then to Halloween (unless you’re like me and prefer to retain the apostrophe).
Samhain: The origins of Hallowe’en itself are pre-Christian. It began as an ancient Gaelic festival known as Samhain (pronounced Sow [as in Ow!]-en) to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the darkest time of the year. Bonfires were lit, a custom that continued at least up to the 1990s in Ireland, though I don’t see much evidence of it anymore, with trick or treating now the main Hallowe’en activity for Irish children. Samhain remains the name for the month of November in the modern Irish language, and Hallowe’en night itself called Oíche Shamhna (Samhain night).
Ghost: from Proto-Germanic gaistaz meaning soul or spirit. It’s interesting how there wasn’t a clear distinction between a person’s soul and a ghost. Whereas now we tend to think of a ghost as a scary thing (though still derived from a person), in the past it could be more positive or neutral. Hence why in Christian terminology Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost are interchangeable.
Poltergeist: a German loanword, meaning noisy spirit.
Banshee: from the Gaelic Bean Sídhe, literally meaning fairy woman. The most prestigious families of old Ireland were said to have a banshee, who would be spotted (as a beautiful young woman or a horrible old crone washing clothes at a river) or heard screaming by a family member on the occasion of someone in that family dying. It was said that the person to die would not see or hear the banshee, so you’d have mixed feelings to say the least if you encountered her.
Ghoul: from the Arabic ghul, an evil spirit which would rob graves and feed on corpses. Batman fans might recognise this word in the name of the villain Ra’s al Ghul, meaning The Demon’s Head.
Bogeyman/Boogeyman: probably comes from the Old English bogge, meaning hobgoblin. This word has probably influenced a lot of words in other languages, many of which have also come into English: pixie (from Cornish), puck, and bug, as well as related words like bugbear (originally an evil spirit in the form of a bear that ate children: puts your bugbears into perspective) and bugaboo. This is also believed to be the origin of the aviation term bogey, as unidentified objects on radar were compared to spirits flying around.
Jack O’Lantern: meaning Jack of the Lantern, first recorded in the late 17th century, originally referred to will o’ the wisps (ignis fatuus in Latin, meaning foolish fire), flickering lights observed above marshes, now believed to be caused by the oxidisation of various gasses. The use of the term to refer to carved pumpkins dates to the 19th century and was first recorded in America (not as many pumpkins in Europe in the past). The practice of such carvings is much older though, and was one of historic customs of Samhain. In Ireland and Britain, it was usually done with turnips. The image at the top of the page is a 19th-century example of such a carving, and can be found in the Museum of Country Life in Co. Mayo. Be aware that it will visit you in your dreams tonight. Enjoy, and Happy Hallowe’en!