Like most North American celebrations, Hallowe’en is a mix of traditions from all over the world. One way we know this is from the history of the words associated with that spooky night, starting with the name of the holiday itself.
The word Hallowe’en comes from Scotland. In the Christian tradition, November 1st is All Saints’ Day. The Scots referred to the saints as hallows, using an old Germanic word that means “sacred” or “holy.” (You might recognize it from the phrase “hallowed be thy name.”) That meant November 1st was All Hallows’ Day—and October 31st, naturally, was All Hallows’ Eve, or Allhallow-even. Say that five times fast, cut a few letters, and you get “Hallowe’en.”
What about the witches, vampires, zombies, and skeletons you’ll probably see swarming in the streets tomorrow night? Witch comes from the Old English wicce, the feminine version of wicca. Nowadays, “Wicca” refers to a religious movement that draws on ancient pagan beliefs, but the Old English word referred to a sorcerer or wizard. So a wicce or witch is just a female wizard—which is still how we use the word today.
The word vampire takes us away from Scotland and Britain to Eastern Europe. Looking at the history of this word shows us how the legend of the vampire spread through Europe: English gets the word from either French or German, which got it from the Hungarian vampir.
From Hungary, the word zombie takes us around the world to Haiti. A zombi in Haitian Creole is a dead body brought back to life by magic. Some etymologists trace the word back to West African languages, where it might have originally referred to a snake god.
People all over the world have skeletons (obviously!), so the skeleton itself doesn’t come from any particular tradition. The word, however, comes from the Ancient Greek phrase skeleton soma, which literally means “dried-up body” and, by extension, “mummy” or “skeleton.” The word skeletos itself means “dried-up.”
One final surprising etymology from Ancient Greek tells the story of the most recognizable symbol of Hallowe’en, the pumpkin. This word comes from the Greek pepon, which means “melon” or, literally, “cooked thing”—perhaps because the Greeks thought of melons as being cooked or ripened by the sun.
So Hallowe’en turns out to be one of our great multicultural festivals: an American celebration with a Scots name, monsters from around the world, and the Ancient Greeks lurking in the background (as they so often do). Who knew?
Source: Online Etymology Dictionary
Like this post? Check previous posts in The Etymologist series: