October 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Hallowe'en Treat

        Everyone deserves a treat on Hallowe'en, and today I treat you to a handful of etymologies of words we tend to encounter this time of year.  Go ahead, take them all - they're calorie-free!

     pumpkin - A mid-seventeenth century American variation of the mid-sixteenth century pumpion, we get our word from a French word pompon.  I got all excited - pumpkin and pom-pom come from the same root?  Well, apparently not.  Pumpkin's pompon derives ultimately from the Greek p├ępon - "melon" (still apparent in the scientific name), while pom-poms come from pomp, from the Latin word for display or procession.  So although they are both round, decorative, and festive at this time of year, the "pompon" connection is a trick.

     jack-o-lantern - This word entered English at the same time as pumpkin but had nothing to do with pumpkins at first.  It was the name of a will-o-the-wisp in southwestern England.  From there people began to carve hollowed-out turnips to
keep spirits at bay, and it wasn't until immigrants brought that tradition to the USA that we got our traditional Hallowe'en jack-o-lanterns.  I've never tried to hollow out a turnip, but I can imagine that once you got to work with a pumpkin, you'd never go back!

     mask - English adopted this word in the 1530s from French, which got it from Italian, which got it from Latin.  From there the source is uncertain, perhaps Arabic maskharah "buffoon, mockery."  It also clearly seems to be related to a pre-Indo-European root meaning "black," hence mascara.  So whether you go for the Freddy Krueger mask or the French Maid mascara, you're making use of the same disguising root.

     chocolate - From the Nahuatl language, this word first came to Spain with cocoa beans from the New World, and reached England and English around 1600.  The Fry's Chocolate Factory in Bristol, England seems to have made the first commercial chocolate bars, and the Hershey Company made the first individually wrapped chocolate bars suitable for handing out to trick-or-treating children.

     treat - Its first sense, from about 1300, was "to negotiate, deal with," as in treaty.  The transition to candy began around 1500, when we had "to entertain with food and drink (presumably by way of bargaining)."  The noun meaning "anything that gives pleasure" dates to about 1770.  So that whole "trick or treat" thing sounds like bribery in more ways than one.  (But I must confess that as a child it never even crossed my mind that there was a threat implicit in my cheerful Hallowe'en greeting, and I'm happy to say that the kids in our neighborhood now don't view it that way either.)

        Happy Hallowe'en!

[Picture: Cat-o-lantern, by AEGN, 2011;
Jack-o-mustache, by PGN, 2011;
Jack-o-grin, by TPN, 2008.]

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