The Etymology of ‘Halloween’

Halloween is upon us. If you have ever wondered about where the word Halloween comes from, here is a brief origin story. In short, it comes from the archaic English word for ‘sacred’ or ‘saint’; hallow, and the word for ‘the day before’; eve (as in Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve). The day it precedes is a Christian holy day called All Saint’s Day, or All Hallow’s Day, a day where the dead, including Christian saints, are remembered :ghost:.

This religious dwelling on the souls of the dead is where Halloween’s celebration of all things dark and scary begins. It really got going in the late 18th century in the USA with the arrival of thousands of Irish immigrants, whose customs and traditions many modern Halloween practices :fairy: are based on (a quick Google search will find you a detailed history).

The Old English root of ‘hallow’ is halig from which we also get its modern form - holy . You might be surprised to learn that holy is used to express surprise in sayings such as holy moly! , holy cow! :cow2:, and holy mackerel! :fish:. These expressions are a kind of euphemism known as minced oaths . Minced oaths were used by people who wanted say profane or blasphemous things without getting into trouble. Other minced oaths include “for crying out loud!” and, the still frequently heard, “jeez”.

There are many other interesting etymological connections to Halloween (‘trick or treat’, for example) and to hallow (the word ‘health’ is another relative). What interesting words have caught your ear this Halloween season?


This is so interesting, thanks for sharing, @rynmnfrd ! :ghost:

My interesting Halloween words are: Rübengeister & Räbelicht (or similar ones… depending on the region)
Because… Did you know that in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria there is a very similar tradition to the Irish / US Halloween?

Traditionally kids carve out beets and roots (just like the pumpkin carving), which are called something like Rübenlichter, Rübengeister, … depending on the region and dialect. It also depends on the region if the kids either walk through the village or town with their lanterns in a big group, singing songs or if they go from house to house, placing the “ghost” in front of the door, then knock or ring the bell and say rhymes or sing a song when someone opens the door. In return, they get fruits or sweets. The main difference is, that the kids did not get dressed up for this.

Of course, nowadays it gets mixed up a lot with the Halloween tradition, that you describe. Which means that kids in Germany also dress up, go from house to house and scream “Süßes oder Saures!” (= trick or treat). I think most kids don’t even know that there is a German tradition about this, too…


@rynmnfrd cool! I never knew the origin of Halloween - very interesting!

I love the word Jack O’lantern, which I just realized, I have no idea where this came from. Who is Jack? After some research, I found out that in Ireland people hollowed out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets (similar to those in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, as Janina mentioned) and placed lanterns in them to scare off Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was a miserable drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone :joy: - his family, friends, neighbors, and the devil. There are many stories around Stingy Jack, like this one. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to the United States when they started using pumpkins because they were bigger easier to carve.

Here is a photo of a turnip Jack O’lantern:

@kjanina I had no idea that there was Halloween tradition in DACH! Thanks for sharing :slight_smile:.