Where Did These Fall and Halloween Words Come From?

2 min read

The Autumn Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere) is September 22, but just like the Christmas-decorating season seems to creep earlier every year, sweater and pumpkin fever has already begun. Fall is officially the time for all things cozy AND spooky. Whether you prefer to trick or to treat, these autumnal words will get you into the pumpkin spice spirit.  


While “autumn” and “fall” are synonymous, “autumn” is the older word for the season. It comes from the Latin autumnus and entered the English language around 1300. It could also be related to the Etruscan word for “the drying out season.” Prior to the word “autumn,” the word “harvest” was used — butthis was confusing, because “harvest” referred both to the season (noun) and the harvesting of crops (verb). When “autumn” was introduced, it proved to be the more popular moniker.


Fall is more popularly used for the season in the United States, but the term originated in Britain. By the mid 1800s, British and American English diverged, along with use of the words “fall” and “autumn.”

John Pickering, an early American lexicographer, wrote  about words “Peculiar to the United States of America,” "In North America the season in which this [the fall of the leaf] takes place, derives its name from that circumstance, and instead of autumn is universally called the fall."


While modern witches tend to be women, the earliest use of a word for “witch” was the masculine word “wicca,” meaning “man practicing witchcraft.” The Old English word appeared in Laws of Alfric (an early Christian text) in 890 CE, and the feminine “wicce” didn’t come about until 1000 CE. The word “witch” could have come from a slight pronunciation shift from “wicca” but there are also potential etymological ties to Dutch and Slavic words. It’s also worth noting that “wicked” and “witch” have unrelated origins as the ancient witch was not inherently considered evil.


Jack has been a common first name since the 1500s, and it made its way into many nursery rhymes, songs, and folklore . The term “jack-o'-lantern” is British in origin — in the 17th century it referred to a night watchman, an early policeman who carried a lantern. The Irish believe it came from a folkloric character named Stingy Jack, who thought he could fool the devil. Instead, he sentenced Jack to wandering the Earth with just an ember of fire from hell as a light. Jack-o'-lanterns were traditionally carved out of potatoes and turnips in Scotland and Ireland, but when the practice traveled to North America, they became pumpkins.


Before Edward Cullen and Angel, the vampire archetype was Count Dracula. When author Bram Stoker named his creature of the night, he was influenced by “Vlad the Impaler” or, “Vlad Dracula,” a real-life Romanian ruler from the 15th century who killed thousands of his enemies. In Romanian language today, dracul means “devil,” but several hundred years ago, “Dracula” meant “son of Dracul,” who was Vlad’s father. This derived from the Latin draco, or dragon, a mythical creature often associated with the devil.

Featured photo credit: MundusImages/ iStock

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