Words about words
M. Michael Brady
The word Halloween first appeared in the late 16th to early 17th century as a contraction of All-Hallow-Even, or “All Saints Eve,” the last night of October. That fact, replicated in dictionaries, obscures a failure of lexicographers (those who compile dictionaries). The date and the observance of Halloween predate the time when the church decreed that the venerations of the saints were to be collectively celebrated on that specific day. In that time before the modern lexicographic history of Halloween began, there’s another story—with Old Norse connections.
It begins with the entwined evolutions of the Old Celtic and Old Norse calendars. Both were lunar calendars, based upon the cycles of the phases of the moon, as opposed to solar calendars based upon the solar year. Moreover, according to the Gregorian calendar, both started on Nov. 1 and ended on Oct. 31, traditionally the end of the harvest season that marked the end of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
In Celtic pagan tradition, the lapse of time from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 is marked by Samhain, a Gaelic festival that included many of the attributes of the modern celebration of Halloween, including people (now mostly children) in costume going door to door, often singing in exchange for food. The duration of Samhain was regarded to be liminal, when the witches of the otherworld could cross freely into our world. So it also was known as the “night of all the witches.” Arguably the best guide to Halloween is The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), an American writer of science fiction and fantasy most known as the author of the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 that became a cult film in 1966.
Historically, the witches of the otherworld were either female or male. But with time, mentions of them became principally female. So a male witch became known as a warlock, a word in English derived from one of two suggested Old Norse root words. Perhaps most appealing was the Old Norse varð-lokkur (“caller of spirits”), which has been discredited by scholars, principally because it’s inconsistent with comparable English etymologies. So the complete Oxford English Dictionary etymology is from the Old Norse várar, the strong feminine plural of the word for “vow.”
Further reading: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury, New York, Random House, first published in 1972, reprinted 2001 by Yearling, an imprint of Random House, 146-page paperback, ISBN 978-0-375-80301-7.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.