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  • Forfatterens bildeRebekah Olson

4 Halloween Word Origins 🎃

With Halloween just around the corner, let's take a look at the origin stories, or etymologies, of some of the words we've come to associate most with the spookiest of holidays.

👻 Boo!

Unlike the ghosts "boo" is attributed to, this interjection (an utterance that expresses a spontaneous feeling or reaction) actually has an anatomical origin. Because "boo" is one of the easiest sounds for the human mouth to make (the “b” made by forcing air through closed lips; the “oo” made by loudly vibrating vocal cords through rounded lips), this monosyllable quickly became the go-to sound for people wanting to frighten someone. In fact, "boo" is used in languages around the world.

As far back as the 15th century, the utterance we know today was written as “bo” or “boh” in Middle English. An early written example of “bo” can be seen in this haunting tale about a smith who created a woman for himself:

What, evyll hayle! sayd he / Wylt not thou yonge be? / Speke now, let me se, / And say ones bo!” (Lo, evil health, said he / Will you not young be? / Speak now, let me see / and say “bo”!)

“The tale of the smyth and his dame,” 1565

😱 Haunt

Stemming from the 14th-century Old French verb "hanter", the original meaning of this word is actually "to visit regularly". It's easy to see then, how we got to today's meaning of something unnatural visiting, or haunting, us, on a recurring basis. But, like with so many words we use today, the modern meaning of "haunt" is actually attributable to none other than Shakespeare, himself:

“How now, mad spirit! / What night-rule now about this haunted grove?”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ~1594

🎃 Jack-O’-Lantern

Like many tradition-based words of yore, this strange term for a carved pumpkin has more than one origin story. Which you believe is up to you.

  1. According to an Irish folktale, after a run-in with the Devil, a man named Stingy Jack was forced to spend eternity wandering the Earth with naught but a lit turnip to guide his path. From then on, the naturally occurring lights that would appear in the marshes (known as will-o'-the-wisps in Scotland) were seen as the lanterned turnips of Stingy Jack, or, as he came to be known, Jack o' Lantern.

  2. Another etymology traces jack-o’-lanterns back to a 17th-century nickname for night watchmen, which was then later applied to the marsh lights. Since carved pumpkins came to be used to ward off evil spirits, it might make sense that their name would come from the watchmen of old.

🍬 Trick-Or-Treat

Long before trick-or-treating, children and the poor would go “souling", the tradition of going door to door for soul-cakes. Dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, soling was commonly practiced in England all the way up until the 1930s.

Around this same time, the early components of today's Halloween (asking neighbors for treats, dressing up, carved pumpkins) were starting to come together in the United States, having been brought over by Scottish and Irish immigrants. It wasn't until 1927 though, that "trick or treat" was first cited in print, when two Canadian newspapers strung together "trick" and "treat" into the either-or refrain we sing today!

Continuing with linguistic spookiness, in our next article, we'll be talking about the highly-contested eytomological and historical origins of the holiday itself:

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