Linguistic Halloween: The Origins Of The Season’s Spookiest Words

Nothing says “scary” like tricky etymologies.
October 29, 2020
Linguistic Halloween: The Origins Of The Season’s Spookiest Words

Halloween is a huge day in a child’s life. It’s the only holiday where it’s perfectly alright to go from door to door threatening to cause minor property damage if you’re not given candy. That might be an extreme interpretation — “trick or treat” is generally an idle threat — but this holiday gives us an opportunity to step outside the ordinary. And it’s also the perfect time to learn the spooky word origins of the ghastly jargon associated with the season of fright.

Terms for the supernatural are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little bit all over the place. Ghouls hail from all over the world, and so, too, do spooky word origins. Learning these horror-filled histories can help you understand the cultures behind the scares.

13 Spooky Word Origins

Boo

It’s kind of weird when you think about it, but ghosts have a catchphrase: “boo.” But because the word is an interjection — it doesn’t really fit into any other grammatical category — it acts differently from other words. For one, it doesn’t really mean anything, and that’s because it originated as a simple result of human anatomy. It’s one of the easiest sudden sounds for the human body to make, because the “b” is formed by simply forcing air through closed lips, and the “oo” is loudly vibrating vocal cords passing through rounded lips. It’s a noise designed to scare people, and so it makes sense that it became attached to one of the scariest things we can think of.

We didn’t always yell “boo,” though. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the sound was written down as “bo” or “boh.” Some etymologists have even tried to trace “boh” back to the Ancient Greek boaein, meaning “to cry aloud,” yet others say that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s also likely that writing “boo” rather than “boh” in the 19th century also changed the meaning a bit. The classic ghost doesn’t simply yell a quick and loud “boh!” anymore, it emits an eerie, fluctuating “boooooooooo.” In the 19th century, the word “boo” also took on other meanings, like the kind of “booing” that shows disapproval or the “boo” that essentially means “nothing.” It’s a versatile little word for both the living and the dead.

Ghost

The word “ghost” goes all the way back to the Old English gast, but the meaning has changed a bit over the years. One of the earliest meanings of gast is “breath,” and another meaning equated it to the Latin spiritus, which is where the modern word “spirit” comes from. While it certainly had otherworldly connotations, gast refers more to the unknown forces that create life, rather than being a spooky scary specter. The line between the two concepts is somewhat thin, though, and the use of gast to refer to a disembodied spirit happens as early as the 14th century. The phrase “ghost story” doesn’t come until 1811, however, indicating that the modern concept of a “ghost” didn’t evolve until around then.

Halloween

The history of Halloween is a complicated one, with intertwined Christian and Pagan roots. We won’t get into all of that here, because the spooky word origins themselves present enough of an etymological knot to untangle.

To get to the word “Halloween,” you have to know a few important facts. First, the Christian holiday known as All Saints’ Day — as the name implies, it’s a feast day that celebrates all the saints — has been held on November 1 for over 1,000 years. Second, another word for “Saint” is “Hallow,” though we modern English users tend to not use that word as a noun (though you have almost certainly heard of “hallowed grounds”). Third, the evening before a feast day was sometimes referred to as an “even,” which has evolved so that now we refer to the days before holidays as “eves.” Fourth, Scottish people often shortened the word “even” to “e’en.” 

By the 1550s, people referred to October 31 as Allhallow-even, and in 1724 someone whittled that down to simply “Hallow e’en.” The name exploded in popularity when Scottish poet Robert Burns referred to the night before All Saints’ Day simply as “Hallowe’en” in a 1785 poem of that name. Burns wasn’t the first poet to describe the festivities, but his fame is likely what made this name the default.

Halloween Eve

If you’re like 74 percent of Americans, you probably don’t have a name for the night before Halloween, or Halloweeneen if you want to be clever about it. But there are certain parts of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom that do have specific terms, which all point to the same thing: October 30 is a night for pranks, tricks and, in some cases, more malicious acts. The date is changeable, though. In England and a few other places, it’s more common to celebrate this holiday on November 4, the night before Guy Fawkes Day.

There are, in fact, quite a few names for this tradition. The most popular is Mischief Night, which is very commonly used in New Jersey and a few other parts of the United States, but it comes from England (the earliest reference to be found comes from an Oxford University headmaster in 1790). This is likely the oldest name to survive, because the other names come from the 19th and 20th centuries. The other more common name is Devil’s Night, which appears in a few parts of the United States but is most associated with Michigan, particularly the area near Detroit. A few people in New England and Ontario call it Cabbage Night, or Nuit de Chou (because historically, they would throw rotten cabbages at each other), and a smattering of people across the United States call it Devil’s Eve. And just to run through a few more scattered versions, there’s also Damage Night, 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.

Haunt

The verb “to haunt” comes from the Old French hanter, which means “to visit regularly.” The use of this word goes back to the 14th century. It was perhaps not too far a leap to think that the undead might also have places that they like to haunt. But like so much else, that meaning of the word seems to go back to Shakespeare. The earliest reference appears in his 1590 play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Oberon says to the fairy Puck, “How now, mad spirit! / What night-rule now about this haunted grove?” There’s another meaning of haunt that meant “to have sexual intercourse with,” but there’s no knowing whether that had anything to do with undead spirits.

Jack-O’-Lantern

Carved pumpkins are the most quintessential symbol of the Halloween season. It seems a little counterintuitive, then, that the earliest jack-o’-lanterns weren’t pumpkins. The British used beets, and there’s one Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack who has a run-in with the devil and has to spend the rest of eternity wandering the earth with a lit turnip. The ghostly lights that would appear in swamps and marshes (alternately called Will-o’-the-Wisps in Scotland and ignis fatuus in other places) were attributed to Jack-of-the-Lantern doing his evening walk. Or, you know, Jack O’Lantern. Thus, one explanation of the rise of jack-o’-lanterns arising in the 19th century is this folktale.

Not everyone agrees that this folktale is the source of these spooky word origins, however. A different etymology traces jack-o’-lanterns back to a nickname for night watchmen in the 1660s, and then the nickname was later applied to the Will-o’-the-Wisps. So maybe these pumpkins got their names from these watchmen, then. After all, jack-o’-lanterns are a sort of night watchmen for evil spirits.

Monster

The word monstre appeared in English by the early 14th century, being borrowed from the French monstre. The French word evolved from the Latin monstrum, which also could refer to some sort of malformed creature. But before that, the earliest meaning of monstrum was “evil omen.” The shift from abstract monstrum to modern monsters occurred because the sight of an abnormal animal — whether that be a deer with a missing leg or some other aberration from “normal” — was a bad sign. By the late 14th century, monstre could refer to mythical animals like centaurs. And it was in the 1550s that a human could be a “monster,” meaning they were particularly cruel or inhumane. 

The link between physical and moral deformity has long been a part of the idea of monsters, which is rooted in a human fear of anything that dares veer away from what’s considered normal. It’s worth mentioning, though, that using physical traits like scars to show a character is “evil” is lazy at best and has caused huge amounts of persecution for people through the ages. 

Spider

Spiders are a year-round phenomenon if you know where to look, but their webs are central enough to Halloween decorations that we thought we’d include them in this list of spooky word origins. And while animal names tend to be consistent over time, it wasn’t until the 14th century that “spider” — or more accurately spiþer or (later) spydyr — became the most common way to refer to these arachnids. The famed Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer called them loppe, and in Old English they might have been called an atarcoppe (meaning “poison-head”) or a renge (which derives from the Latin word for arachnid, aranea). The word “spider” was certainly around, and it derives from a Proto-Germanic word for “spinner,” but it took awhile to become the default word.

Trick-Or-Treat

This refrain is so intertwined with Halloween, it’s hard to imagine the holiday without it. But both the holiday and the act of trick-or-treating started well before this phrase. Before trick-or-treating, there was “souling,” which was when children and the poor would go from house to house around All Saints’ Day to receive soul-cakes. Souling goes back to the Middle Ages and was commonly practiced in England until the 1930s.

The discontinuation of “souling” happens to coincide almost perfectly with the spooky word origins of trick-or-treating. In the United States during the early 20th century, the loose components of Halloween — souling, dressing up in costumes (or “guising”), decorating your house with pumpkins — were coming together, having been brought to the country by various immigrants, especially those from Scotland and Ireland. There were indeed already tricks and treats by the 1910s, but it wasn’t until 1927 that two Canadian newspapers reported that they’d been strung together into an either-or proposition. But, because of the nature of language, it’s likely that the phrase was in common use by children years before it made it into print.

Vampire

The modern-day a vampire is inseparable from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which is the horrifying story of a Transylvanian count coming to the United Kingdom in an attempt to purchase real estate. Stoker didn’t invent vampires, though, and the earliest English reference to these blood-sucking beasts comes from a 1734 (allegedly true) story called Travels of Three English Gentlemen. The word “vampire” was borrowed directly from the French vampire, which itself came from the Serbian vampir. Trying to trace it back any further gets us into more muddled territory, though one theory is that it comes from the language Kazan Tatar, which had the slightly similar word ubyr, meaning “witch.” 

Werewolf

The Old English word for “man” was wer, and the Old English word for “wolf” was wulf, making the etymology of “werewolf” pretty simple. It also shows that the idea of men who have the power to turn into wolves is very old.

Witch

Surprisingly, the word “witch” really hasn’t undergone that much change throughout its history. It comes from the Old English word wicca, which is still used with exactly the same spelling today to refer to the modern Pagan religion of Wicca. It’s hard to trace the spooky word origins further back than that, though, but it could be related to the Proto-Indo-European weg-, meaning “to be strong.”

While wicca originally could refer to anyone who allegedly performed magical acts, it eventually referred exclusively to women magicians. In the Doom Book — one of the earliest legislative codes, written by King Ælfred in the ninth century CE — the text refers to “gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan,” all three words of which refer to female sorcerers. Men could be referred to as witches up through the 20th century, but it had a strong feminine connotation well before then. The earliest use of “witch” to refer to a non-magical woman that people simply didn’t like very much comes as early as the 15th century.

Zombie

There have been countless names for the undead. You might not even notice that the most famous fictional zombie stories — Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead — don’t actually use the word “zombie,” opting for other words. But “zombie” is the default term for reanimated corpses that wish to eat brains.

It’s hard to say exactly where the term comes from, but many linguists believe “zombie” originates in Central Africa. The first time it appears in an American newspaper is in an 1838 short story called “The Unknown Painter,” in which a young enslaved African claims a zombi is breaking into his studio, but he’s told that zombis are just an “African myth.” At that point, though, a zombie wasn’t so different from any other ghoul. It wasn’t until the publication of The Magic Island in 1929 that the zombi was introduced as a member of the undead created by people in Haiti who practice voodoo. This story certainly created and perpetuated a huge number of horrible stereotypes, but it is true that zombies were a part of some Haitians’ beliefs long before they became an American horror trope.

Learn a new, non-spooky language today.
Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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