Word of the Week

Hallow – Solemnly Get Excited


AS OUR SUGAR rushes and/or hangovers slowly abate, I would, in the spirit of Halloween, I would like to talk about the word “hallow.” In its first verb entry, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the word means “to keep (a day, festival, etc.) holy; to observe solemnly.” Knowing the Celtic background to the holiday of Halloween, this makes sense, as it was meant to be a celebration of a multitude of saints. However, “hallow” is also defined as “to chase or pursue with shouts,” the verve clearly at odds with the traditional sobriety of holidays. This is an odd disconnect to have within one word, for while it is not uncommon for a word to have multiple meanings, it is unusual for those meanings to be so disparate.

Now, it would be easy to say that this meaning was tacked onto the word once a more modern interpretation of Halloween — something in the style of what we are more familiar with — came about, but the timelines just don’t add up. The term “Halloween” was not recognized until 1556, with the word “hallow” coming about long before that, which makes sense, but the two meanings continued to develop until about 100 years before “Halloween.” Neither meaning was appropriated after the introduction of the word “Halloween.” Only one addition was added afterwards, in 1674, with that meaning falling into the “call to garner attention” camp. Attempts to reconcile these facts with the word itself quickly become difficult.

What we have, then, is a word that has two very opposing meanings, both of which were attributed to it prior to this holiday term that we know today. We cannot say that “Halloween” was coined for the holiday because of these two meanings, because “hallow” is related to it through All Hallows’ Eve, which is the origin of our contemporary Halloween. Somehow, long before our over-priced costumes and candy avarice, that noisy vibe synonymous with a night of trick-or-treating came into play alongside the solemnity of recognizing religious spirits. Our modern Halloween is an odd fusion of the duality of the word “hallow,” and I’m not quite sure how that came to be, but that’s how it is. Sometimes the universe is just weird like that.

*Side note: another entry for “hallow” is “the parts of the hare given to hounds as a reward or encouragement after a successful chase.” Make of that what you will.

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