The end of the year is upon us.
That’s right. According to the old Celtic calendar Oct. 31 is Old Year’s Night, the one night of the year when witches and ghosts find their way into the world of the living and inflict a little horror.
The modern definition of “horror” as an “emotion or feeling of disgust or dread” has been around for about 600 years. It’s a French word from the Latin “horror,” which means “dread,” but could also mean “religious awe.” In this context, I think of Brando’s Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” His repetition of “the horror” is not about dread; it’s about awe. A really creepy sense of awe.
Literally, though, the word “horror” means “shivering, trembling,” like feeling a chill.
This shaking denotation comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “ghers,” which means “to bristle.” Think about seeing something scary and feeling the hairs on your body stand up straight — that is literally what “horror” means.
Related to “ghers” is the Latin “eris,” which means “hedgehog.”
Hedgehogs have nothing to do with this column. Unless you find them terrifying. Or unless you considered a hedgehog costume, which, if you did, you should feel proud that you will literally have dressed as “horror” and no one would know it. Well, you and the one other person who reads this column.
Back to this day of horror. The ancient Celts called this day Samhain (pronounce “sow-in”), but in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III Christianized the pagan holiday spirit by declaring Nov. 1 All Saints Day, which is our modern translation of the Middle English “Alhalowmesse.” And this meant that the day before would become “alhaloweven.”
Around the 16th century, the Scottish shortened “alhaloweven” into “hallow-e’en,” and the name stuck. English has a centuries-old tradition of shortening long words or phrases, so the next time someone complains about text-speak, just tell them it’s in our linguistic DNA. God may have made Adam and Eve, but we made Brangelina and Desilu (ask your parents about that one).
“Hallow” is taken from the Old English “haligian,” which means “to make or honor as holy.” You can see or hear the word “holy” (in your best Celtic accent) at the beginning of “haligian.” Beggeting “haligian” is the Proto-Germanic “hailagon” and the Old Norse “helga.” (Yep, Hagar’s wife is technically “holy.”)
At the Proto-Indo-European root level of “hallow”, we see the root “kailo,” which means “whole” or “uninjured.” It’s from “kailo” that we get our English word for “health.”
There’s a great irony here because in the cultures of the far north, especially in Alaska, we find this time of the year to be our unhealthiest, particularly in terms of our mental health.
The second half of “Halloween” has a connotation similar to “hallow.” Since the Old English “efen,” the word “even” has meant “equal” or “calm” and “harmonious.” In the adverbial sense, the word could be applied to ideas of justice (getting “even” with someone). Compare this to “hallow” meaning “whole” or “complete.”
Around the 12th century, as the English talked about the time of the day, they dropped the “n” at the end, and it became “eve.” (Note: the Biblical name “Eve” is not related to the English form. Rather, it comes from the Latin translation of the Hebrew name “Hawwah,” which literally means “a living being.” Etymologically, they aren’t related; but thematically, they sure are.)
While we tend to equate “evening” with the end of the day, etymologically, the base word suggests something different: that this is the time for calm, for harmony, for smoothing out the rough parts of the day. A time to gather with friends and family, a time for forgiveness, for justice, for reconciliation. It doesn’t mean the “end”; it means preparation for something new.
That’s why Halloween could be one of the more important holidays if we wanted it to. If we thought of it more along the lines of making each other right, of making each other whole, before the beginning of the new year as its name suggests, instead of the gluttony and the gore, maybe we Alaskans could find greater courage before facing another long, dark winter.
Not that there’s anything wrong with costumes, candy and parties, of course. It’s all quite valuable. But it could reap benefits to change our goal from flimsy “fellowship” to sincere even-ing: to build each other up as “living beings,” to thrive among the frozen bristles and hibernating hedgehogs as the sun sets on autumn.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.