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  • AutorenbildRebekah Olson

The Linguistic History of Halloween 🎃

With Halloween just around the corner, let's take a look at the highly-contested origin story, or etymology, of the spooky holiday itself.

With its intertwined Pagan and Christian roots, the history of Halloween sure is a complicated one. In this article though, we'll be taking a look at how the holiday got its name, which also happens to be quite the complicated tale...

We all know that Halloween falls on October 31 every year. But, did you also know that there is a 1000-year old Christian holiday, called "All Saints' Day", that falls the very next day, on November 01? (Here in southern Germany, we actually get that day off work!) Christians would celebrate this day with a large feast.

An older word for "saint" is "hallow", an Old English word related to "holy" and the German word "heilige". Though we don't use this noun much anymore, its adjectival form can be found in the familiar English phrase "hallowed ground".

For centuries, the night before a big feast was called an "even". Eventually, this word evolved into "eve", which we still use to refer to the nights before big holidays, such as Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

By the mid-16th century, people had begun calling October 31 "All-hallow-even", or literally, "All Saints' Day Eve".

How we got from "All-hallow-even" to "Halloween" is thanks to the Scottish, who often shortened the word "even" to "e'en" in their famous dialect. (Remember that Halloween has Celtic roots.) In 1785, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, cemented the holiday's name once and for all when he referred to the night before All Saints’ Day as “Halloween” in his poem of that name:


Okay, so now we know that Halloween got its name by being the night before All Saint's Day, but what about the night before the night before All Saint's Day? Well, most of us don't have a name for "Halloween-een", but for some people throughtout the US, Canada, and the UK, this day does have a name, the variants of which all seem to pertain to the same thing: mischief.

Check out this map below of US term usage for this night of the year:

To many of us, these may seem pretty funky (I'm looking at you, "Cabbage Night"), so let's take a deeper look:

Mischief Night

Commonly used in: New Jersey

Origin: Oxford University, England, 1790

The oldest written appearance of a name for this night

Devil’s Night

Commonly used in: Michigan

Origin: Detroit area, 1940

Though originally for small pranks, by the 1970s, this holiday came to be associated with arson. After a horrific Devil's Night in 1994, Detroit city officials decided to start calling the day Angels' Night, instead. To date, this holiday is celebrated by volunteer work throughout Detroit neighborhoods.

Cabbage Night (French: Nuit de Chou)

Commonly used in: New England and Ontario

Origin: Ontario, 1950

Historically, on this day, people would raid farms for rotting cabbages and then hurl them at people throughout town (mk, what?).

Other names used for this day include Damage Night, Devil’s Eve, Fox Night, Goosey Night, Hell Night, Mystery Night, Chalk Night, Clothesline Night, Corn Night, Doorbell Night, Garbage-Can Night, Moving Night, Gate Night, Light Night, Picket Night and Ticktack Night. Goodness!

What about you, do you have a name for this the night before Halloween?

Continuing with linguistic spookiness, in our next article, we'll be talking about Samhain, Halloween's Celtic, Pagan roots.

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