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British, American, and both: a history of Halloween words

The holiday of Halloween has its roots in the British Isles; the word itself (short for All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1), originated in Scotland. Nonetheless, it was in North America that disparate regional customs were amalgamated into the celebration we recognize today. The vocabulary of the holiday reflects this joint history.

Who is the Jack in Jack-o’-lantern?

The Oxford English Dictionary records that in the 17th century, the original meaning of the word jack-o’-lantern was ‘a man carrying a lantern; a night watchman.’ Jack in this case is used generically for any man, as in the phrase jack of all trades. By 1673, Jack-o’-lantern took on a new sense, referring to the phenomenon of mysterious outdoor lights also known as a will-o’-the-wisp or ignis fatuus. This was the usual meaning of the word until the mid 19th century, when another shift in meaning occurred.

The most common contemporary meaning of jack-o’-lantern, of course, is the grinning, candlelit carved pumpkin which is a ubiquitous symbol of Halloween. The custom of making such lanterns at this time of year probably originated in the British Isles, where turnips were the material of choice. In North America, pumpkins have become the standard, having the natural advantage of being hollow to begin with. In North America, the word Jack-o’-lantern now refers specifically to a carved pumpkin, but 100 years ago the connotations were much more flexible:

The room. . . should be decorated as grotesquely as possible with Jack-o’-lanterns made from apples, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc., with incisions made for eyes, nose and mouth and a lighted candle placed within.

1912 Mary E. Blain Games for Halloween 9

Although the lanterns themselves may have originated on the eastern shore of the Atlantic, OED’s first example of the word jack-o’-lantern being used to describe them comes from America, in a simile from the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Hide it [sc. the great carbuncle] under thy cloak, say’st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o’ lantern!

1837 Nathaniel Hawthorne Twice-told Tales 222

Souling, guising, and trick-or-treating

Nowadays, there is no more emblematic Halloween tradition than the custom of trick-or-treating, but it is actually a fairly recent innovation. In the early 20th century, North American young people dressed up in costumes, carved jack-o’-lanterns, and practiced a lot of amateur divination (especially charms to find out who they would eventually marry), but the practice of going door to door for sugary booty had not yet made its debut. In contrast, similar customs in Scotland (known as ‘guising’) and some parts of England (known as ‘souling’) were practiced at this time of year by children as early as the 19th century, and by adults even earlier. Here is an account from 1880:

In Shropshire and other parts of England children still go souling, and they sing the following verses… “Soul! Soul! For an apple or two; If you’ve got no apples, pears will do. . . ”

It seems to be a similar custom, that of the boys of Scotland, who at Hallow tide go about ‘guising’. Three or four of them put on ‘false-faces’, or vizards of pasteboard, and enter a house unceremoniously; [they then stage a sword fight].The wounded combatant is speedily cured, and the ‘guisers’ are ready to depart, enriched with whatever the good people of the house are willing to give.

1880 Dundee Courier & Argus 5 Nov. 7

In both of these customs, the children were expected to give some sort of performance before getting their reward. The North American custom of trick or treat is probably related, but in this case the emphasis shifts to a threat of vandalism or pranks if the children do not receive their treat. The earliest known reference to “trick or treat” is from 1927 in the village of Blackie, Alberta, in Canada:

1927 Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald 4 Nov. 5/2

 The practice spread southward and eastward across the continent and was widespread in North America by the 1940s. Since then, it has gone on to colonize the British Isles; the Oxford English Corpus shows over six times as much British evidence for “trick-or-treating” as for “guising” in modern use.

Mischief Night, Goosey Night, Cabbage Night

Although the phrase trick or treat once implied a threat of mild vandalism, the tots who typically utter those words today are unlikely to engage in such behavior (for one thing, they are usually accompanied by their parents). Instead, in much of North America, the real tricks happen the night before Halloween, October 30, when teenagers smash pumpkins, throw eggs, and decorate trees with toilet paper. Depending on where you live, you may call the night of October 30 any of a variety of regional names: Mischief Night, Devil’s Night, Cabbage Night, Trick Night, Gate Night, and Goosey Night are all used in various parts of the United States.

The term Mischief Night is also known in northern England, where it similarly refers to a night on which young people indulge in pranks and vandalism, sometimes of a very serious nature. Originally, the English Mischief Night was April 30, the night before May Day, but more recently the term has been used in reference to the night of the 4 November, before Bonfire Night, as well as to the night of October 30.

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