Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Scary Words of Halloween

It’s that time of the year again when pumpkins are carved, scary costumes are worn, and a lot of people are tricked. But what are the origins of some Halloween objects and the etymology of the festival’s name itself?

Halloween – The festival’s name comes from Christian origin and dates from about 1745. It directly translates as ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’. ‘Halloween’ comes from a Scottish term for ‘all hallows eve’. In Scottish language, eve translates as ‘even’, often contracted to ‘-een’ or ‘-e’en’. As English changes over time, the term for the October festival changed - (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en eventually evolved into Halloween.
Spider – comes from a mix of Dutch and Germanic roots that eventually formed in Old English ‘spiþra’. The arachnid got its name from Proto-Germanic ‘spenthro’ (Danish ‘spinder’), from ‘spenwanan’ meaning "to spin" linking to how they spin a cobweb. The connection with the root is more transparent in other Germanic cognates (Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, Middle High German, German spinne’).

Witch – Nobody is 100% sure where the term ‘witch’ comes from. It has a long complicated history. The most populist idea is it derives from Old English ‘wicce’ meaning ‘female magician, sorceress’; a woman who had dealings with evil spirits and the devil. The verb ‘wiccian’ means ‘to practise witchcraft’.

Zombie – goes back to the 1800s. It derives from a West African word ‘zumbi’ meaning a soulless, re-animated corpse or a fetish in voodoo cult. It originally referred to the name of a snake God.
Nightmare – has a very literal meaning and is of Germanic origin. It literally refers to a ‘night mare’ that inflicted spirits of suffocation onto the sleeping victim to which they could not scream for help. So it’s a very literal word because that’s what happens when we suffer a nightmare. The word refers to an evils spectre by the bedside. Over time the two words merged into one.

Goblin – malicious but not as nightmarish as ghouls. Goblin comes from the German 'kobold'. In German folklore, a kobold is a mischievous household spirit, sometimes helpful and sings to children. But too often, he hides valuable household items, kicks people, and erupts in rage when he doesn’t get enough food.

GhoulIn Arabic legend, a ghoul is a creature that eats both stolen corpses and children. The word comes from the Arabic ‘ghul’ which comes from ‘ghala’, meaning “he seized.”

Ghost – a ghost is considered to be the soul of the dead: they are empty, vacuous and vague which is why they are visually depicted as white sheets. The word ‘ghost’ comes from Old English ‘gast’ meaning ‘soul, spirit, life, breath.’

Jack-O’-Lantern – refers to what a pumpkin becomes after it has been carved out and lit up with a candle inside it. It originally referred to a night watchman who literally carried a lantern to see in the seventeenth century. The term was first used in Britain before it was taken to America as Irish immigrants brought the Jack-o’-Lantern custom to North America, which is where pumpkins were first used to make the Halloween decorations. Legend has it that this use of jack-o’-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack, who thought he had tricked the devil. But the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light.


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