Halloween’s Most Haunted Origins: Words behind the Traditions

The history of Halloween is complex.  Some historians argue about how certain customs and words associated with Halloween came into existence. If you are interested in learning more about the origins of Halloween and its various traditions, I recommend that you read “The Eerie Origins of Halloween” by Eleanor Tremeer in Babbel magazine.  

Halloween has both Christian and Pagan roots.  Another word for saints is “hallow”(see All Saints Day). The evening prior to “Feast Day” was sometimes called “even,” which later evolved into what we call the day before holidays, “eves.”  The Scottish shortened “even” to “e’en.”  Halloween came into fruition in 1724, and Robert Burns made it even more popular in 1785 when he wrote the poem entitled “Hallowe’en.”

The tradition of “trick-or-treating” began as the act of “souling,” which originated with All Saints Day in England.  The original trick-or-treat was children and the poor going from door to door to receive soul cakes.  This continued until the 1930s when Scottish and Irish immigrants in the United States began souling (going door to door) and guising (dressing up in costumes). Around this same time, houses began decorating for the holiday, including putting out pumpkins. By the year 1910, the term “trick or treat” was becoming popular.

There is also a very common exclamation used around Halloween season.  Can anyone guess what it is?  You’re right, BOO!  In the 15th through the 17th centuries, it was spelled “bo” or “boh.”  Some etymologists have traced the word boh back to the ancient Greek word boaein, which means to cry aloud.  

The word haunt dates all the way back to the 14th century.  To  haunt comes from the French hanter, meaning to visit regularly .  The earliest record of the word haunt goes back to the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, in the line where Oberon says to the fairy Puck: “How now, mad spirit! What night-rule now about this haunted grove?”

Language is inextricably linked to culture, including its incorporation into some of our most celebrated holidays like Halloween. Understanding the etymology of words and their influence on our cultural traditions can impact our ability to understand one another and our world a little better, even some things we may otherwise take for granted.

By Rachel Kraft

Marketing Manager