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In a Word -- All about English Vocabulary

Scary Words of Hallowe'en

© John Keith 2004

In a Word was originally written for the ESL Egg, a Vancouver publication and website for ESL students.

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This month In a Word looks at the frightening vocabulary of Halloween.  On October 31st, at sunset, children dressed up in scary and not so scary costumes wander from door to door, demanding "Trick or Treat", and holding out a bag, and they are given candies, mini-chocolate bars, and other sweets.  The children, and adults at Halloween parties, are dressed as witches (women who practice black, or bad, magic), warlocks (guy witches like an evil Harry Potter), ghosts (souls or spirits of the dead who stay on earth and hang around at or "haunt" a haunted house, ghouls (horrible demons that feed on corpses, or dead bodies), goblins (ugly, evil creatures who like to play tricks), vampires (evil corpses that come back to life at night and suck people's blood through conveniently large and hollow canine teeth), werewolves (people who change into scary wolves during the full moon and bite people, changing them too into werewolves), zombies (corpses brought back to life, but still is rather dazed or brain-dead, as if they had too many alcoholic drinks of the same name), and all manner of other frightening monsters. At Hallowe'en, there are also prosaic or everyday costumes such as a "businessman", a "model", a "rock star" or even  "Darth Vader".

Why so much death and dying? -- all these come from an ancient Celtic ceremony, Samhain (pronounced "sow-en"), that celebrated the death of summer and the beginning of the new year. The Celts were the people of northern France and Great Britain, and their priests built Stonehenge, the ancient circle of stones in England. On Samhain, the Celts believed the ghosts of the dead returned to walk the earth, and to celebrate Samhain and the new year, the Celts lit bonfires and dressed up in costumes. By the seventh century, the Christian church started celebrating All Saints Day, or All Hallowed (or Holy) Day, on November 1st, the day after Samhain. The evening before started to be called All Hallows Evening, similar to calling the day before Christmas Christmas Eve. Later, it was shortened to Hallowe'en. The pagan druid festival with its costumes still took place -- and still takes place today.

People in our modern age don't think of its origins when they celebrate Hallowe'en, but it is remarkable that remnants of the ancient druid religion survive to this day. The druid's priests and priestesses were called witches and warlocks after the coming of Christianity, and today's Harry Potter is the most famous warlock of all time except maybe for Merlin in the tales of King Arthur. We still celebrate Hallowe'en every year, dressing up in costumes, and we set on our window sills a Jack O' Lantern, a candle shining out through a grim face carved in a pumpkin. A lantern like this, it is said, originally held the sacred flame -- like the flame in Olympic ceremonies and it was carried from the most holy druid place in Ireland to all the homes in the country. Even now, every Hallowe'en, this ancient celebration of the night of the dead, the dying of summer, is still held, and the sacred druid flame still burns in homes in Canada, in the US, and around the world.

Word List and Look-up

More About Hallowe'en:
   History of Hallowe'en
   More Info from Wikipedia
   About.com: Hallowee'en from the Pagan and Wiccan perspective