The end of October is approaching, making now a good time to brush up on the history of Halloween language. Let’s explore the twisted tales of how the spookiest words (including ’spooky’ itself) came to be.
The Origin of the Six Spookiest Words in English
The name ‘Hallow-e’en’ may have Christian roots, but October 31 celebrations originated in ancient times. As the last day of the Old Celtic calendar, October 31 was the ‘old-year’s night’ and the ‘night of all the witches’. With the spread of Christianity, however, the date was transformed into the Eve of All Saints— the day before All Saints’ Day on November 1. So, while the date of Halloween had pagan origins, the word itself has a Christian origin.
Modern English ‘Halloween’ is a shortened form of the compound ‘All-Hallow-Even’. ‘Hallow’ refers to a saint or holy person. A meaning which hasn’t really been in use since about 1500, but which is preserved in ‘Halloween’. ‘Even’ is ‘eve’, the day before a (religious) festival. In the history of Halloween, one of the earliest uses of the compound ‘All-Hallow-Even’ can be found in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (written in 1603 or 1604), in which the character Froth mentions ‘Allhallond-Eve’. This form might be vaguely recognizable, but it’s still distinct from the modern one that we use. The form ‘Hallow-e’en’ arose in the late 1700s and has been in use since, although most modern spellings eschew the hyphen and apostrophe.
‘Spooky’ is a derived form of ‘spook’, which refers to a ghost or apparition. The term was borrowed from Dutch spook. Often a colloquial term, it first appeared in American English in 1801, and about a half-century later in British English. This usage faded, whereas the derived adjective ‘spooky’ entered use in the mid-to-late 1800s (and of course, is still in use today).
A 13th-century borrowing from French hante-r, the earliest senses meant to practice (something) habitually, or to frequent (a place) habitually. Although modern English noun ‘haunt’ retains a sense of the latter meaning, today the verb ‘haunt’ primarily refers to troubling, molesting, or distracting habitual visits from unseen visitants, be they natural (memories, feelings) or supernatural (ghosts, disembodied spirits). ‘Haunt’ didn’t acquire this sense until the late 1500s; this sense also has a much more negative connotation than the original meanings.
’Pumpkin’ entered Middle English via Middle French, although it originally looked quite different. English ‘pompion’ was a loan of French pompon, and it referred to pumpkins or melons. The word traces its origins back to the ancient Greek pepōn ’large melon’. The English form we find today, ‘pumpkin’, was created by adding a suffix –kin to ‘pompion’. The suffix –kin, however, has a somewhat mysterious history. OED notes that –kin has “only a limited use in English”, and words with this ending were “either adopted from Dutch or are of obscure origin”.
In any case, ‘pumpkin’ was created by an analogy to other words with this –kin suffix. Variable forms were used early on, including the forms ‘pumkin’, ‘pomkins’, and ‘pumpkies’ that are all attested in the 1600s. Today, everyone uses ‘pumpkin’, but there are several pronunciations. Aside from the standard ‘pumpkin’ pronunciation, some English speakers say this word as ‘punking’ or ‘punkin’. These alternate pronunciations are found in both British and American English.
Inherited from Germanic, Old English gást originally referred to the soul or spirit, in the sense of one’s life-force— what we would now call the spirit. Terms like ‘the Holy Ghost’ and ‘the ghost in the machine’ refer to this original meaning of the word. The modern sense, which refers to the visible form of a deceased person’s soul, is attested in the late 1300s in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women and is spelled ‘gost’. In fact, variable spellings including ‘goost(es)’ and ‘gaist’ were used until the 1590s, when the spelling ‘ghost’ was established. The ‘h’ was an innovation that was probably inspired by the Flemish word gheest.
‘Boo’ used to be a verb that only had one “o.” Now obsolete, ‘bo’ was an onomatopoeic verb meaning to imitate the sounds made by a cow. That verb fell out of use (likely before the 1600s), but the cry ‘bo!’, which was used to surprise or frighten someone, did not. The form ‘bo’ is seen through the 1600s but was replaced by ‘boo’ by the 19th century. Although we might normally think of ‘boo!’ as just an exclamation, the phrase ‘to say boo to a goose’, meaning to speak up for oneself, has been used in English since the 1600s. In fact, this phrase is the earliest known use of the word ‘boo’. While modern English speakers don’t often say ‘boo!’ to geese in the literal sense, we still use this cry to scare or surprise each other.
Regardless of who or what you scare this Hallow-e’en, hopefully, you’ll enjoy it more now that you know the history of Halloween and the histories behind English’s spookiest words.