Halloween – What’s in a Name?

Interestingly, the majority of people believe that the celebration of Halloween has never had any religious significance, and that we must not draw a correlation between Halloween, All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). For those of you who fall into this category, here’s a brief summary. “Hallowmas” (originating from the Old English word hālig, but I’ll come back to this later) is a Western Catholic triduum that lasts from 31 October to 2 November – it includes all three observances mentioned above and is dedicated to remembering the dead.


Alright, now we know that Halloween used to be a religious celebration, and that it means something entirely different today. The concept of Hallowmas has been quite successful in providing some evidence for this, but what else can be seen as a sign? Of course, the name.

I will try my best at explaining this, using a Hungarian-language article from Nyest.hu that deals with the same subject. In Anglo-Saxon, the word hāl meant ‘whole’ – I don’t think I have to go into detail about the link between the Old and the Modern English word; it seems to be quite self-explanatory. However, it is less obvious that the word ‘health’ has also derived from the same root. It was the former meaning that later gave birth to the adjective hālig (‘holy’ or ‘saint’). The Modern English word ‘hallow’ was originally a synonym of ‘saint’ – as a noun, referring to a holy person. Nowadays we tend to use it as a verb, meaning ‘to make holy’ or ‘to sanctify’.

We’re nearly there! Before we move on to what ‘een’ means, let’s talk about the event itself. What is Halloween? The evening before All Saints’ Day – in other words, All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve. Christmas Eve is the evening before Christmas Day, isn’t it? Well, the same rules apply here. And as we already know that ‘hallow’ is used as a synonym of ‘saint’, referring to the celebration as ‘All-Hallows-Even’ begins to make sense.

Now let me tell you about the second half of the word ‘Halloween’. As I have just stated, the observance was originally called All Hallows’ Even. Even was the Scots word for ‘evening’ and was contracted to e’en in the term. Furthermore, the apostrophe – which marked the missing ‘v’ – was later omitted. Due to the influence of Modern English orthography, een is now pronounced [iːn].

This is the story of how All Hallows’ Even became ‘Halloween’. Wikipedia sums up the changes in the term as follows:

(All) Hallow(s) E(v)en → Halloween (All Saints’ Eve)

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little summary. Oh, and I apologise for the short and simple article, but the time and energy I can sacrifice in favour of maintaining ‘I wish to be a polyglot’ are very limited at the moment. Goodnight, and happy Hallows’ Eve!


One thought on “Halloween – What’s in a Name?

  1. Pingback: Juntante la comunia de elefen – Como me pote aida? #babel2013 | I wish to be a polyglot!

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