spooooky punctuatiooooon!

Today is the 31st of October, so it’s that very special time of year. It’s been a beautifully mellow yellow autumn day over here; I’ve been working away in my garden; those floating little insects dancing up and down in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun; my doggo carefully watching the fence, and saving his mom from very dangerous passers-by by barking as much as possible…then it became foggy. And foggier. And foggier. By the afternoon, you couldn’t see 6 feet ahead of you, and fog was tangled up around the naked tree branches. Seasonal weather if ever there was one!

Ah, Halloween, Halloween…or should that be Hallowe’en? What’s the apostrophe doing there? And what about the most spooky-pooky of paraphernalia of the day, jack-o’-lanterns? Here’s your ultimate Halloween-punctuation guide!

And yes, I wrote Halloween without its little apostrophe hiccup – the habit is strong!

Halloween Apostrophe Rule 1: Possession

Halloween comes of course from All Hallows Day (which we now call All Saints Day, hallows being an Old English word meaning “holy” – Harry Potter anybody?), that is, 1 November, the day that we remember and celebrate all the saints and holy people, known and unknown.

Here we go already, one apostrophe rule kicks in, namely signalling possession. The Oxford English Dictionary and plenty of official language overseers write All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day with apostrophe, the day of all the hallows/saints. I would argue, though, that the possession here is moot: is the day really owned by the saints? Or is it more of a case of the noun happening to be plural? Compare Fathers Day or Girls School.

Fra Angelico's vision of the saints.

Halloween Apostrophe Rule 2: Contraction

What about that Halloween spelling now? All Hallows was on 1 November, so the evening before that would be called All Hallows Evening, or Even, which, when pronounced fast as people tend to do, sounds like /een/, or /ee.en/. This is not official phonological spelling, just an attempt at transcribing what it sounds like. There may be a little lingering over and lengthening of the ee. They swallowed the v and showed this by marking the disappeared letter with a little hook between the e-twins. That’s apostrophe rule number 2, contraction: when one or more letters vanish, we flag that up through an apostrophe. That’s a super common occurrence in English and other languages. Just look at “that’s” which is a contraction of “that is”.

So, people shortened the term, not only at the end, but at the beginning too. All fell away, and we’re left with Halloween. The apostrophe spelling Hallowe’en is still relatively common in the UK, and was probably original (that is, the apostrophe didn’t creep in later, but rather fell out).

Enjoy some Victorian Little-Red-Riding-Hood-Hallowe’en-Sabrina-the-Teenage-Witch cards…

Around the sixteenth century, people started to say Hallowe’en. And around the late eighteenth century, Halloween without apostrophe appeared. Apparently, there’s even evidence for people writing Hallow-e’en, knitting together the two words with a hyphen, because the plural -s of Hallows fell away, together with the possessive apostrophe. What a crowd of little punctuation marks! I’d love it if it didn’t look a bit…busy on the page. A case of punctuation archeology, punctuation as a relic of the permutations a word goes through across the centuries, only that, sometimes, those relics are not useful anymore, our eyes have grown used to the word, and we can discard them. As we duly do. There’s only one way of spelling Halloween, and it’s HALLOWEEN! You can cite me.

More Halloweenie Punctuation! The Hyyyyyyyphen…

Onto our second Halloween punctuation treat: originally, All Hallows Day was in spring, but in the nineth century, Pope Gregory IV moved it to 1 November. Happily, this fell together with Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead when the doors between this life and the next were believed to become porous, so that the souls of the dear departed could come visit. That’s why we dress up in scary costumes, tell ghost stories, and put up lights and lanterns. At the end of the Middle Ages, a custom emerged that had people go from door to door, asking for cakes in exchange for prayers for people’s perished. Early trick or treating!

People’s favourite Halloween custom is, of course, hollowing out a pumpkin, carving a scary face into the skin, and illuminating it with a candle. That, too, is a Renaissance tradition remembering Stingy Jack of Irish folklore who tricked the devil into paying his every drink. After Stingy Jack’s death, the devil cursed him to roam the cold dark night for ever with nothing but a glowing piece of coal to find the way. Jack put his coal in a carved-out turnip, and a jack-o’-lantern was born. The apostrophe contracts the -f here, and the hyphens chain the plethora of little words together, making it crystal clear they belong together as one.

Alternatively, those hollowed-out-lit-up vegetables are known as will-o’-the-wisp (an extra hyphen, yay!). It’s a similar story, but this time it’s fairies who lure travellers into the marshes at night with their flickering lights made from wisps, or bundles of burning straw. Those lights do actually appear in moors, and are glowing gases from decaying plants. At some point, someone invented a guy called Will who tempted travellers into the marshes with his wisp torches, hence, Will of the wisps, or will-o’-the-whisps.

And now, off to some spooky playing with this Very Scary dog-reaper who knocked at my door, asking for doggo treats, or else…!

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