It's almost Halloween: the day kids and adults alike play dress-up and gorge on candy, though it's far more socially acceptable for the kids to go on a begging spree.
In the spirit of this night of spirits, here's a look at some Halloween vocabulary that won't rot your teeth.
Evolving from All Hallows' Eve, Halloween has been found in English since the 1500s. So if Halloween is the day before All Hallows, what the heck is All Hallows? Well, it's another way of saying All Saints, as in All Saints Day, a Christian holiday. But the traditions of Halloween are older than the word, arising from the Celtic festival of Samhain. The idea was that as summer turned to fall, the barrier between this world and the realm of ghosts and other creepy critters got thin, thus the spookiness of the holiday.
As a verb, to hallow is to bless or consecrate something: holy water has been hallowed by a priest. Hallow is also a word for a saint, and the form hallowed refers to holy, sacred things. Hallowed ground is sacred ground, either in a traditional religious sense or a more figurative sense. For a baseball fan, old parks such as Fenway in Boston and Wrigley in Chicago are hallowed ground, though they're not quite old enough to appear in the bible.
Derived from Arabic, this word refers to an evil spirit of some sort. The original ghouls were believed to be mysterious grave robbers. The term is found in English since the late 1700s, and it's broadened quite a bit, referring to not only nasty ghosts but people behaving in a malicious manner. Any person who preys on the weak, acts in a morbid way, or just gives you a Frankenstein-sized case of the creeps can be described as a ghoul. Don't be a ghoul, people.
We all have little fears: this is a big fear. If you feel a sense of horror, you're paralyzed by intense fear, which can also be called terror. You might also be screaming your head off. This fear-focused meaning is why horror is the genre of movie that scares you senseless, often with a monster, shark, or maniac.
Another ghostly word, this can be a synonym for a ghost or apparition, and it can be used as a metaphor too. If you feel like the world is sliding into fascism, you can say, "The specter of fascism is creeping across the globe." Specter can also represent other things that metaphorically haunt you, like the "specter of failure" or the "specter of regret." Specters are always bad. You'd never discuss the specter of chocolate cake or the specter of a job promotion.
This word means "something that appears," and usually that something is a ghost or other type of supernatural beastie. Apparition is also used for other types of appearances, such as the apparition of a comet. Shakespeare used the sense that's appropriate on Halloween in his classic play Julius Caesar: "I thinke it is the weakenesse of mine eyes That shapes this monstrous Apparition." In other words, "Man, I must be seeing things."
This word has had an interesting journey, much of which was not scary. Originally, to haunt meant to do things regularly or familiarly. If you haunted a restaurant, you were there often. This eventually started covering some regular visitors that are unwelcome: ghosts and other weirdies. People are also haunted by ideas, regrets and dreams, which, like ghosts, can't be seen. In fact, example of people being haunted by ideas are found just a little before examples of people being haunted by Caspar and the like. Back in 1600, Shakespeare used the term in the eerie sense in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted. Pray masters: fly masters: helpe." In other words, "Ghosts! Run!"
Many Halloween costumes and stories focus on the supernatural, which is kind of a strange word. Does it mean something is all-natural but also super-duper? Not exactly. Supernatural things aren't just unnatural: they're not real. Monsters such as werewolves and vampires are examples of the supernatural: so is the magic of witches and warlocks. Supernatural forces are magical, but also bunk. You don't have to worry about ghosts or zombies, really.
The origin of this word isn't clear: the Oxford English Dictionary suggest its etymology might have something to do with elves. The OED is more confident of the word's meaning: "Weird, ghostly, unnatural, frightful, hideous." Found in print since the 1500s, eldritch has been describing the sorts of goblins and ghosts that are so prominent on Halloween and in horror movies. This is a perfect word to use when you've been using creepy and spooky too much. Never be scared of broadening your vocabulary.
These words aren't as catchy as "trick or treat," but they are part of the colorful history of this popular holiday. Better to learn them now than later: don't take a chance of being haunted by the apparition of a weak vocabulary.
Can't get enough? Check out the vocabulary list Halloween Words for more lexical treats.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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