Slip of the Lip
Hailing from the glorious city of Queanbeyan, I spent my first year of uni dabbling in Physics, Maths, English and Music. By some drastic turn of events, I am now majoring in German and Linguistics. A Slip of the Lip is a linguistics student’s attempt to provide interesting and (reasonably) well-researched language titbits.
With Halloween (and exams) coming up, there are some frightening times ahead, but how much do you know about the history behind these spooky words? I now present you with the origins of ‘Halloween’, ‘jack-o’-lantern’ and ‘zombie’…
Though there are certainly many aspects of Halloween that stem from Celtic Pagan traditions, the name ‘Halloween’ itself is of Christian origin. The 1st of November is the Catholic festival ‘All Saints’ Day’ – alternatively known as ‘All Hallows’. A ‘hallow’ is just another word for a saint, or if you’re a Harry Potter buff, it can also mean any symbolic, powerful object of legend. The 31st of October is thus, All Hallows Eve, and has been referred to as such since the mid-16th century. If you speak Scots (a language in – you guessed it – Scotland), the word for ‘eve’ is ‘even’, which contracts to ‘e’en’. With a little bit of laziness and a whole lot of time, we’ve ended up with: All Hallows Eve – (All) Hallow(s) E’en – Halloween.
As early as the mid-17th century, Jack-O’-Lantern, or “Jack of the Lantern”, was a term used to describe a night watchman – ‘Jack’ being a generic name for any unfamiliar man. The name was also given to the lights than spring up over marshlands (likely as a result of chemicals oxidising), because they looked like spooky watchmen traversing the night. According to Irish legend – though the term actually comes from the tale of ‘Stingy Jack’ – one day, Stingy Jack met the Devil, and convinced him to go for a drink before he was taken to Hell. The Devil obligingly agreed, but Jack, being stingy and all, didn’t feel like paying for the drinks. The Devil, being other-worldly and having no cash, suggested that he turn himself into a coin in order to pay. Stingy Jack thought this was a brilliant idea, and once the Devil had turned himself into a coin, Jack put him in his pocket next to a silver cross so the Devil’s powers were thwarted and he was stuck in coin-form.
Jack eventually released the Devil on the condition that he be allowed to live a while longer, and the Devil wouldn’t take his soul when he eventually did die. Fast forwarding a bit through the story, Jack died and went up to Heaven. God was all like “uh-uh, you’re a sinner through and through, down to Hell with you,” but because Jack had made the Devil promise not to take his soul, the Devil wouldn’t take him into Hell either. Jack was doomed to find his own afterlife – he begged the Devil for at least a light to find his way, and the Devil threw him an ember. Jack took it, stuck it in a turnip, and began his eternal journey. When the practice of putting lights in vegetables at celebrations eventually made its way over to America, it was discovered that the native pumpkins were perfectly suited to the tradition. Children also worked out that carving scary faces in them made the whole thing just that little bit more Halloween-y. Thus, the current jack-o’-lantern.
The word ‘zombie’ likely derives from the Kongo word nzambi, meaning “god”. The word, and significant elements of Haitian Vodou practice, made their way over with the slave trade from Africa to Haiti in the mid-17th to 18th century. The first reference in English of ‘zombie’ in the sense that we now use it was in W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 sensationalist book, The Magic Island, as ‘zombi’. The concept of the walking undead has its roots in Haitian beliefs, though (from my limited knowledge of the topic as someone who has never lived in Haiti nor met a Haitian) appears to be parallel to, rather than actual part of, the Vodou religion. A bokor, a sort of sorcerer who deals with darker magic, is believed to have the ability to turn a person into a zombie – in most cases using an existing corpse, but in some cases killing a person expressly for the purpose of zombification. These zombies themselves are not particularly harmful, and are mostly reported to be used as slave labour on plantations. The prospect of being turned into a zombie is actually far more terrifying than the prospect of encountering one. Thus, the process of zombification is actually outlawed as murder according to Haitian Penal Code (Article 246), as long as the ‘lethargy’ associated with the zombification process leads to the burial of the technically still-living victim.
So there you have it. There are (in my opinion) the origins of the most interesting word in the spooky Halloween phenomena. Happy Halloween everyone!