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Deja-boo! – Halloween Histories

MEGAN HARDING shines welcome light on the dark annual celebration’s origins, and the wonderful wicked words woven into its past

The word ‘Halloween’ has many skeletons in its cupboard, dating back thousands of years to the Celtic festival of Samhain. Pronounced 'soo-when', Samhain marked the dawn of the Celtic new year and the transformation of seasons; people would take part in rituals of slaughter and burning bones in a bone fire, giving us the compound bonfire, while cautiously remembering that the separation between the world’s living and dead is the weakest on this night.

Be scareful how you use it!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Halloween’ derives from the noun ‘All-Hallows’ which dates to early Old English ‘Alle Halge’ used by the Christian church to mean ‘all saints’. In Ireland, however, due to the rise in popularity of pagan traditions (after Pope Gregory III converting people to Christianity), ‘All-Hallows Eve’ morphed from a small celebration to a wide-spread phenomenon!

The displacement of Irish Catholics to America in 1845 meant that the rest of the world started to get into the spirit of Halloween. The festival was infused with folk traditions like carving ‘jack o’ lantern’s (an English compound) in the hopes of protecting one’s soul from the drunken fool Stingy Jack - a person I would not like to meet at a Halloween party! In the Oxford English Dictionary, R. Fergusson is credited with the first written use of the modern Hallow-e’en in his “Poems” from 1773. Despite this, one could argue the modern-day tricks (and occasional treats) associated with Halloween only began in 1912 in Kansas when a woman named Elizabeth Krebs grew tired of the anti-Christian vandalism in the town. To prevent the masked children from rioting she organised a party for the community, and by 1914 the night consisted of costume contests, parades, and sweets. So, what was once a mischievous night (the noun mischief coming from the Anglo-Norman ‘meschief’ meaning misfortune) became a communal gathering!

Creeping it real in 2022

That’s not to say all the spooky traditions disappeared; today, people dress up as ghosts, witches, and skeletons to haunt guests at parties worldwide.

However, while the panicking parent's throw white bedsheets over their children, let us consider the 'h' in ‘ghosts’. Did you know that it wasn't always there? The noun ‘ghost’ originates from the Old Frisian ‘gãst’ and later the Dutch ‘gheest’ (of the same Germanic base as Old Icelandic ‘geiski’ meaningfear’. When Caxton brought his printing press back from Flanders, he also brought Flemish typesetters to help with the set up in England, and while typing what was the English noun ‘gost’ they added an ‘h’ because it resembled their native language. If you prefer to impersonate a ‘witch’ (from the Germanic ‘wicker’) for the night, you may wish to dress as a ‘white witch’. Dating back to the 1600s, 'white witch' is an English compound meaning a witch that uses her magic for good purposes, as supposed to a ‘black witch’ who is malicious and evil.

Shaking with Shakespeare

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Shakespeare with the first use of ‘haunt’ in 1597 when he wrote “some haunted by the ghosts” in Richard III. However, it is likely that ghost sightings have occurred since the first century AD, so Shakespeare is unlikely to have created the concept of haunting spirits. It is common now for people to choose fewer frightening costumes, yet even when someone favours glamour over gore, they are still etymologically spooky.

Trick or Treating with my BFF – ‘Grammar’

The noun ‘glamour’ was first recorded in the 18th century, and was a Scottish corruption and alliteration of the noun ‘grammar’. Originally, ‘glamour’ (introduced into the literary language by A. Scott) meant magic, enchantment, and spells, much like grammar did when borrowed from the French ‘grimoire’ and meant a book of magic spells in the mid-19th century. In modern day English, ‘grammar’ is associated solely with the study of language, but linguists would argue it is still just as glamourous!

So, maybe this year instead of going as a ghost for Halloween, you could try dressing as the Oxford English Dictionary. Rest assured you would be the most historically glamorous person at the party!

Written by Megan Harding

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