• Lucas North

The spooky roots of Halloween

Photo: Tony Hernadez/Unsplash

HALLOWEEN REMINDS US OF one spooky fact: the meaning of words shifts around like ghosts floating through the night.

There’s a tendency to think the meaning of words is fixed. Often, it isn’t.

If you’re not convinced, try this.

On 31 October, when there’s a knock at your front door, be prepared. It’s probably just a gang of kids in ghostly garms bought from the Pound Shop. They may be carrying a carved pumpkin whose flickering candle-flame will add a few shaky shadows to their spookily made-up facial features.

How to scare kids

Once you’ve been through the trick-or-treat ritual, ask the kids what Halloween means. This will probably scare the bejesus out of them because they won’t have a clue.

Well, they won’t have a clue as to its original meaning.

I would expect younger ones to say that what they’re doing at your front door is what Halloween means. And they’d be right: for them, trick-or-treating pretty much sums up today’s definition.

But trick-or-treating’s relatively new, especially in the UK. It wouldn’t have meant anything to kids of my generation. It’s an American import, where it’s thought to have existed for about a century.

Even if it is 100 years old, it’s a youngster compared to the rituals that spawned it.

The origins of Halloween

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Halloween is thought to be associated with the 2,000-year-old Celtic festival Samhain, when ghosts and spirits were believed to be abroad.

Hmm… I can see why kids have lost the original meaning. When the world’s best-known dictionary says ‘abroad’ here, it means something like ‘moving about’ or simply ‘outside’. It doesn’t mean the ghosts have floated off to Benidorm for a bit of winter sun.

Readers of a certain age will also notice that the word has even changed its look. The apostrophe that used to appear between the two Es has also floated off somewhere. It was there in place of a missing ‘v’. So, the second part of the original word was ‘even’ (itself an abbreviation of ‘evening’), which was contracted to e’en. Argue among yourselves how efficient it is to write Hallowe’en rather than Halloweven.

So, the original sense was an ‘evening’ of ‘hallowing’ (honouring the holy). Go to’s description of trick-or-treating to learn more about the pre-Christian rituals that included bonfires, sacrifices (presumably of cattle) and paying homage to the dead.

Holy moly, it's so surprising what we honour these days

We occasionally still use the first part of the word, ‘hallow’ in something like its original sense. Now, we may refer to the hallowed halls of ancient buildings and expensive football stadia, despite the fact that places like Wembley stadium have very little to do with holiness. This again shows how the meaning of words shifts over time.

This is just one of the reasons that it’s good to know the age of the people you’re hoping to reach when you write messages to your customers. Because the very same words mean different things to different people.

Get in touch to find out more about writing messages that make sense to those you want to reach. In essence, they’re the difference between a trick or a treat.

Thanks for reading.

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