Blog Excerpts

Back by Popular Demand: "Hallow, What's This?"

Two years ago on Halloween, resident linguist Neal Whitman explored the origin of the word Halloween. Just in time for the candy and costumes, we're revisiting his questions: how and why did eve turn into e'en? For that matter, what is a hallow? Why did the all get dropped?

I'll get the last question out of the way first: I don't know why the all disappeared from Halloween. The citations in the Oxford English Dictionary have it with the all from the earliest one in 1556 to one in 1616 from Shakespeare (Allhallond-Eue, in Measure for Measure). From the 1700s onward, it's Hallowe'en.

At least until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows arrived, the closest word to hallows heard in present-day English was the verb hallow "to make holy", usually in the form of the past participle hallowed. Christians are familiar with it from the first sentence of the Lord's Prayer, in hallowed be thy name; other than that, it occurs most often in hallowed ground(s) or hallowed hall(s), according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English. In fact, hallow and holy come from the same root. In Old English, holy was spelled halig; with the verb-creating suffix ‑ian it produced halgian "to make holy", which underwent several sound changes over the centuries to end up as hallow. The ‑ian suffix is the closest Old English comes to being able to "verb a noun" without changing it. I've translated halgian as "to make holy", since we can't just talk about "holying" something in present-day English, but still, "to holy" or "to holify" gives a better sense of having the meaning of "make holy" encapsulated in a single verb.

So much for hallow the verb; what about hallow the noun? J.K. Rowling used it to mean a sacred object, but that isn't its original meaning. It comes from halga, which as the masculine noun form of the adjective halig meant "holy person". In other words, hallow is a native English word for saint. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of the plural hallows was extended to mean relics or temples of the saints, and from there, Rowling went a step further to give it her desired meaning.

Moving on to eve and e'en, both are shortened versions of even, an archaic word for "evening". Even itself might seem to be a clipped version of evening (likewise morn and morning), and cultural historian David Skal even writes, "The word Halloween derives from the Middle English hallowen ... and the progressive contracting of evening to even to e'en." He's wrong here: Evening came later.

Read the rest of Neal's column here.

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Thursday October 31st 2013, 2:45 AM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea, Republic of (South Korea))
The interesting origin and use of Halloween deriving from several words and using prefixed words like transcontinental meaning 'coast to coast', suggests to me many hundred of multiple word expressions in which perhaps Visual Thesaurus could engage in. That is, VT could expand their site with a section strictly devoted to expressions, both common and rare. I notice more modern dictionaries wisely doing this and I believe it is greatly appreciated.
Thursday October 31st 2013, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
In Germany, November 1 is called "Allerheiligen", short for "Tag aller Heiligen", in the Christian church calendar. This means "All Saints Day"."Heiligen" is the plural of Heilige(f), Heiliger (m), and "heilig" means "holy", so the relationship with Old English "halig" is more than evident.
Thursday October 31st 2013, 9:21 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
Thank you for the interesting article!

There appears to be a typographical error. The first sentence of the Lord's prayer, in the 1611 King James (Authorized) Translation, contains the phrase, "Hallowed BE thy name."

"After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen" (Matthew 6:9-13).

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday October 31st 2013, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Rain
When did we take the apostrophe out of "Hallowe'en?"
Thursday October 31st 2013, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Rain: Check out Neal Whitman's full article, which includes a discussion of the disappearing apostrophe. According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the apostrophe-less version started to become more popular around 1950.

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Hallow, What's This?