List of Halloween Words

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A reader asks,

Could you comment on Halloween words such as jack-o’-lantern vs jack o’ lantern and Trick-or-treat vs Trick or treat?

I’ll add the word Halloween to the list. If all that is wanted is a guide to spelling and hyphenation, here’s how the words are handled in my two main dictionary references:

Oxford English Dictionary

jack-o’-lantern, jack-a-lantern
trick or treat (given under the entry for trick); trick-or-treating (verbal noun and present participle adjective).


trick or treat

Why a “jack”-o’-lantern” and not some other given name?

Ever since the Middle Ages, a diminutive of the perennially popular man’s name John has been Jack. Because of the ubiquity of the name, it came to stand for any man in general, finding its way into a variety of expressions such as jack-of-all-trades, and jack-in-the-box.

Before jack-o’-lantern, we had jack-with-the-Lantern (1663), meaning, “night watchman.”

In addition to its literal meaning of “man carrying a lantern,” jack-o’-lantern was used to refer to the ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. Its most common meaning nowadays is “a hollowed vegetable carved with a face and lighted with a candle placed inside.” In the US, the pumpkin is the vegetable of choice, but in Ireland, turnips are used.

trick or treat
The earliest documented use of the term “trick or treat” dates from 1927, in a Canadian publication, but the custom of demanding food treats on October 31 originated in the pagan Celtic past.

In the Celtic calendar, October 31 was the last day of autumn. November 1 was the day the cattle were brought in to shelter for the winter. The time was marked by the fire festival Samhain, observing a liminal time when a weakened boundary between this world and the other permitted spirits, those of fairies and of the dead, to cross. People left gifts of food and drink outside for them. In time, the practice shifted from leaving food outside for the spirits to giving it to people who went from door to door. According to an article in the Sun, young people in Scotland and Ireland “would visit their neighbors’ house and sing a song, recite a poem or perform another sort of ‘trick’ before receiving a treat of nuts, fruit or coins.” In the Middle Ages, poor people would visit the houses of the rich to receive pastries in exchange for praying for the homeowners’ dead relations.

The noun is trick-or-treating.

The word is a shortening of All-Hallow-Even, the eve of the Christian festival of All Hallows, in remembrance of all departed saints. Originally, the Christian feast was held in May, but was moved to November in the eighth century, where it subsumed the still-popular pagan festival.

Hallow derives from the Old English word for holy. As a verb, hallow means, “to make holy.” Lincoln uses the word in the Gettysburg Address: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.”

Note on pronunciation
Many Americans tend to pronounce Halloween as if the Hallow were spelled Hollow, a tendency that leads to misspellings of the word Hallows. The a in both hallow and Halloween is pronounced as a short a (as in at).

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