In an effort to explore the relationship between English’s development and our present use of it, I’ve compiled a list of October-themed etymologies. Each of the words I researched was chosen for its connection to the holiday most Americans associate with this month, Halloween. Despite having roots in Gaelic traditions from over a millennia ago, today’s version of Halloween is defined by hallmarks of a thoroughly contemporary capitalist society.
Author’s note: The date and definition of each word is only the Oxford English Dictionary’s first known recording of the word’s use (in English). The purpose of this is to showcase how and when different definitions for words developed. I found it surprising that in some cases common modern definitions were not used for hundreds of years after the word’s first use.
In each listed word, I have purposefully left out usages and definitions that I found repetitive or irrelevant. As such, this should not be considered an exhaustive or comprehensive list of word use, past meanings, or etymologies. All definitions, dates, and records of publication are directly taken from the OED.
Etymology Old English gást or gǽst
800, Old English Texts: The soul of a deceased person.
c900, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: A good spirit, an angel.
c1000, West Saxon Gospels:Matthew: Man’s seat of feeling, thought, and moral action.
1297, The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester: An incorporeal being; a spirit.
c1385, Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women: The soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form, or otherwise manifesting its presence, to the living.
1590, John Smythe’s Certain Discourses: In allusion to someone pale and shadowy in appearance.
1593, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: An apparition; a spectre.
Etymology, Middle English alteration of pumpion
1647, The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America: Any of various kinds of edible gourd.
1680, Dr. Oates’s Narrative of the Popish plot Vindicated: Applied contemptuously to a person who is stupid, conceited, or self-important or (occas.) to a stout or portly body.
1900, Dialect Notes: As a term of endearment: sweetheart, darling.
Etymology: Derivative of Old English wiccian
c890, Laws of Ælfred: A man who practices witchcraft or magic; a magician, sorcerer, wizard.
c1000, Aelfric’s Lives of Saints: A female magician, a sorceress; a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their co-operation to perform supernatural acts.
c1430, John Lydgate’s Minor Poems: a contemptuous appellation for a malevolent or repulsive-looking old woman.
1740, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virture Rewarded: A young woman or girl of bewitching aspect or manners.
Etymology: Middle French masque
1533, Antonio de Guevara’s The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius: A covering for the face; a covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise.
1577, translation of F. De L’isle’s Legendaire: A pretense, a front, an outward show intended to deceive.
1600, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: An image of a face worn by an actor (meant to identify the character and amplify the voice).
1605, His Majesty’s Speech: A facial expression assumed deliberately to conceal an emotion or give a false impression.
1601 Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s The History of the World: A protective covering for the face.
1778, William Kendrick’s The Lady of the Manor : A woman’s face as disguised by cosmetics.
Etymology: Old English fǽr
1068, Beowulf: A sudden and terrible event; peril.
1175, Lambeth Homilies: The emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger.
1297, The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester: A state of alarm or dread.
Etymology: French costumé
1715, Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting: In historical art—The custom and fashion of the time to which a scene or representation belongs; the manner, dress, arms, furniture, and other features proper to the time and locality in which the scene is laid; hence, those belonging to a particular painting or sculpture.
1802, The Edinburgh Review: The mode or fashion of personal attire and dress (including the way of wearing the hair, style of clothing and personal adornment) belonging to a particular nation, class, or period.
1818, La Belle Assemblée: Fashion or style of dress appropriate to any occasion or season; hence, dress considered with regard to its fashion or style; garb.
1883, Truth: A Weekly Journal: The dress and ‘get-up’ of an actor or actress in representing a character in the play.
Etymology: Middle English, trik (trick); Middle English, trete (treat)
1947, American Home: A traditional formula used at Hallowe’en by children who call on houses threatening to play a trick unless given a treat or present.
“The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, ‘Trick or Treat!’”
–American Home, 1947