Q&A: Halloween or Hallowe’en?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re treating ourselves to some Halloween tricks…

Q: Hi AWC, would you like to come to my Halloween party this weekend?

A: Sure, sounds fun.

Q: Well, I’ll only let you attend if you can explain why “Halloween” is sometimes spelt “Hallowe’en”…

A: Fair enough. And you’re right – Macquarie Dictionary does reference both. But the modern and preferred spelling is without the apostrophe.

Q: So why even have the apostrophe version at all?

A: Well, it’s a big clue to the history of the word. Do you even know what “Halloween” means?

Q: I suppose I figured it was a cross between “home invasion”, “marshmallow” and “weaning kids off sugar throughout November”.

A: Not quite.

Q: Go on then. Give us a history lesson.

A: It goes way back to the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III decided that 1 November would be the day to honour all the saints – All Saints, or All Hallows’ Day. You see, the word “hallow” used to mean “to honour as holy”.

Q: When I first heard about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I assumed it was about someone overdosing on sugar from trick or treating. But this all makes so much more sense.

A: That’s right. And so, 31 October was the evening before – or “All Hallow’s Evening” – when ghosts would return from the dead as the days were getting darker.

Q: So good old Greg 3 was all about honouring saints and the night before was about dead stuff. Seems a million miles from wayward apostrophes and share packs of Freddo frogs.

A: Okay, well the “trick or treat” tradition largely showed up in 18th century America, borrowed from the English and Irish traditions of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for money or food. It went away before being revived in a family-friendly way in the mid-20th century, eventually being the child-focused practice observed there today.

Q: And here in Australia too.

A: Despite Australia’s half-hearted efforts, nothing can match the full “street party” atmosphere and commercial fever that grips the USA from mid-September.

Q: Fair enough. So, I can’t believe I’m asking this, but please tell me more about the apostrophe.

A: Certainly. It’s simply a case of apostrophes doing what they do best.

Q: Taunting people and destroying Facebook friendships?

A: Um, no – the other thing. Replacing missing letters or words.

Q: Oh that.

A: So we got to “All Hallow’s Evening” – which over time became “All Hallow’s Even” and then the “All” dropped away, the “s” took a hike and finally the “v” did a runner. We were left with “Hallowe’en”… simple as that!

Q: So when did the apostrophe go away?

A: Well, as we’ve pointed out, it never fully has – and is still often used for old-timey authenticity. But as early as 1786, the non-apostrophe version was being noted. And like we see these days, any time a shorter version enters popular use, good luck getting people to use the longer version.

Q: So, the banner at my party is fine to not have an apostrophe in it?

A: Absolutely. In fact, any time you write “Halloween” you can leave the apostrophe out. If you see it written as “Hallowe’en” it’s not wrong, but it is a bit like carving a face into a pumpkin: unnecessary.

Q: Okay thanks for that explanation. You can come to my party.

A: What are you dressing up as?

Q: Not sure. I was going to go as a giant black and white bamboo-eating bear, but didn’t really want to panda to anybody…

A: Oh dear.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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