The Many Faces of the Jack-o'-Lantern

In honour of Halloween, this week's spooky etymology is Jack-o'-Lantern:

The underlying point of all this is a demonstration of how folk traditions develop. Many of the popular accounts of the history of Halloween that you may come across on the internet will claim that the "true" origin of Halloween lies in the Celtic Samhain or in Roman rituals, but looking for any one true origin misses the point of how folk traditions work. There is no one origin with a direct line to present day, but a confused mishmash of various traditions, including Celtic, Roman, and Christian. Indeed, any one such claim may be dubious, but looking at general patterns and possible influences is ultimately more interesting and revealing.

What lies at the heart of this story is the intersection of the jack-o'-lantern/will-o'-the-wisp bog light phenomenon and the carved vegetable lantern tradition, which may have separate origins but come together under the name Jack-o'-Lantern. The Stingy Jack story connected to the carved lantern may well be a later rationalization of an already existing tradition, but as is the case with folktales there are many variants and versions. William Wells Newell (see the show notes or online here) collates many of these variants. There are numerous different tricks that the hero of the story (who appears under different names) plays on the devil, such as trapping him in a magic chair or catching him in a bottle, but the core of the story is that the bog light is the soul of someone barred from both heaven and hell after tricking the devil (or sometimes death). The Dublin Penny Journal, in 1836 has another nice, and significantly different, retelling of the story. And as for the different but similar names for the bog lights, they include not only Jack-o'-lantern and Will-o'-the-wisp, but also Jenny-with-the-lantern, Kit with the candlestick, and Joan the wad (wad meaning bundle of straw or torch in Cornwall), along with many other names. And significantly another name is Hob-with-a-lantern or Hoberdy's Lantern, which brings us back to hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow. I could go on, but we'd be here forever; but speaking of Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, I discuss the various similar terms such as Puck, Puca, boggart, and bugbear in my previous video "Bug", if you want to follow up on that some more.

But getting back to Jack, the word/name, of course, has many and varied uses, with some 34 separate senses in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of interest here perhaps is the expression "to play the jack" meaning "to play the knave, do a mean trick". I already mentioned the word jack-tar meaning sailor in the video "Raincheck". By the way, the various mechanical senses, like a car jack or lifting jack or jackhammer, come from the idea that the machine is replacing the job of a manual laborer. And there's one extra detail about the word lantern, while we're at it: the spelling "lanthorn" crops up in the 16th to 19th century as a folk etymology due to the fact that horn could be used as a translucent cover in lanterns. Another instance of how folk  traditions work.

It was Sir James Frazer, whose influential book The Golden Bough I mentioned in an earlier video "A Detective Story", who seems to have first made the claim that the Celtic Samhain was a festival of the dead, and not just a seasonal harvest festival. It's not an illogical idea per se, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence to support it, and Ronald Hutton (whose book examining British seasonal festivals is listed in the show notes) sounds an important note of caution in this regard. The Christian Allhallowtide (and the Roman Lemuria which probably lies behind it, though specific links to Roman festivals or rituals, like the Pomona connection I make in the video, while plausible, also generally lack strong evidence) are festivals of the dead, and Samhain may have picked up those elements after contact with Christianity. Still, there must have been enough similarity and overlap for the merging to have occurred. There may also have been Germanic rituals at around that time of year that played into Halloween. Remember, though Pope Gregory III seems to have moved All Saint's Day to coincide with Samhain, this seems to have been put into practice in Germanic areas first. But then the Irish have a long history of disagreeing with Rome on the important dates of the Christian calendar, if you know anything about the Easter controversy and the Synod of Whitby, recounted in great detail by the Venerable Bede. And speaking of Bede, there is some slight evidence from him of the old Germanic associations of that time of year. He reports that the old Germanic names for the months that correspond to September, October, and November are Haligmonað "holy month" (for some pagan reason the details of which Bede was not aware), Winterfylleð "winter full moon" (presumably when the harvest comes in), and Blotmonað "blood or sacrifice month" (which Bede tells us is when excess livestock is slaughtered, an act that may have had ritual significance in Germanic paganism). And of course in Germanic paganism, the chief god Odin or Woden is among other things a god of death.

As a bit of a side note, though I mention only turnips and pumpkins in the video, there are other vegetables used for jack-o'-lanterns. For instance, the mangelworzel is particularly associated with the Somerset tradition of Punkie night. Here's a nice description with pictures of a contemporary Punkie night celebration.

One small clarification, Carl Linnaeus initially applied the name lemur to the otherwise unrelated slender loris, and only later to the Madagascar lemurs, but it's only with those that the name stuck. And speaking of Linnaeus, for those who are fans of tracking repeated references in a number of the videos, I've mentioned him a number of times, most recently in "Turkey" for the scientific naming of the turkey and the guinea fowl, and before that in "Fossil" for his development of the scientific binomial naming system itself, and Linnaeus also got a brief mention in the blog post for "Gimlet" for his naming of the cinchona plant, which produces quinine. And I've referred to the Puritan suppression of holidays a couple of times before, of Christmas in "Yule" and of Thanksgiving in "Turkey". So you can check those out if you want to know more.

There are interestingly a number of Canadian connections to this story, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that there was a great deal of immigration into Canada from Ireland and Scotland at just around the right period. (I should also note that one of my main scholarly sources for this video was written by a British-born scholar who moved to Canada, specifically Toronto -- Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (see show notes page) -- so this may have led to more of the specifically Canadian history being uncovered.) In any case, the first mention of the pumpkin as a Halloween tradition in North America seems to be in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper in 1866, and the first description of the guising or trick-or-treating tradition in its most common modern form of costumed small children asking for candy seems to be in a Kingston newspaper, in 1911. And though the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase “trick or treat” is in 1947 in an American source, Wikipedia lists a much earlier use of the term in 1927 once again in Canada, in an Alberta newspaper from 1927. If anyone has any more information on any of these possible Canadian connections, I'd love to hear it.

There's one last theme that I discuss only lightly in the video, that of boundaries. Samhain has been described as a liminal time, the boundary between summer and winter, and by extension it may have also been thought of as a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was open. As I mentioned in the video, one of the traditions of the will-o'-the-wisp is that they were the souls of those who moved boundary markers. The Roman Feralia rituals took place at the tombs located outside the city's sacred boundaries. And there may be a connection to another Roman festival Robigalia, which was meant to protect the grain crops by propitiating the god Robigus. In "Jack-o'-lanterns to Surveyors" (see the show notes), John R. Stilgoe discusses the Christian Rogationtide which develops from Robigalia, another example of the Christian repurposing of a pagan festival, which involved in part a procession around the boundary lines of properties. Though over time Rogationtide gradually turned from religious festival  to merrymaking and celebration, the tradition was exempt from the usual Puritan suppression of holidays because it served the practical purpose of keeping track of property boundaries., at least until the advent of more modern surveying techniques. Stilgoe places the belief that the will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern were the souls of those who moved boundary markers in this context, as a holdover from the religious belief in sacred boundaries. But in a strange sort of way it's come full circle again to boundaries, or rather the breaking of boundaries, as the modern popularity of Halloween, which is increasingly also an adult event, is due in part to the freedom it gives people to break boundaries by wearing costumes, sometimes quite transgressive ones. It provides the opportunity to safely cross over boundaries we don't always feel free to violate.

What's bugging you

This time we have the deceptively simple seeming word "bug":

This is kind of a mysterious one, and the etymologies presented here (and anywhere else you might see) are tentative and uncertain. The "puffed up" origin is perhaps further strengthened by the Norwegian dialectal word bugge meaning "an important man" (think puffed up or big). Another etymology entirely that has been suggested for bug, which I didn't mention in the video, is that it might come from a West African word bagabaga meaning "insect",  being imported into English during the West African slave trade, along with another West African word bugu meaning "annoy". The insect word comes into English at around the right time for this West African connection, so it's at least plausible, though few etymologists seem to pick up on this idea. On the other hand, if the goat/buck etymology of bug is correct, that would I suppose connect the various boggarts, bogeys, and bugbears to the Julbok I mentioned in the "Yule" video.

On the subject of slang senses for bug, they're quite numerous with some twenty or more listed in various slang dictionaries, between the noun and verb. Some of the more well known senses and expressions I didn't mention are an enthusiastic interest or person (as in " to catch the acting bug" or fire-bug), to bug out or make a hasty retreat (which seems to come from US military slang), and the bug-eyed monster of scifi fame, which really means bulging eyes but is also taken in the insect sense sometimes.

An interesting older slang sense takes us back to the world of criminal lingo: "Bailiffs who take money to postpone or refrain the serving of a writ, are said to bug the writ". This is reported in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue originally compiled by 18th century antiquarian and lexicographer Francis Grose, also the source of the bugaboo sense "a sheriff's officer" that leads to the burglar alarm. Grose's slang dictionary continued to be added to after Grose's death (you can access the two different editions here and here), and it's one of those later editions that gives us these two senses (though the earlier Dictionary of Slang by Nathan Bailey also lists the bribery sense). Edward Bulwer-Lytton uses the word bugaboo to refer to the police in his novel Pelham: "Many a mad prank ... which I should not like the bugaboos and bulkies to know." I've mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, coiner of many now clichéed phrases, in my previous video "Beef". Pelham, Bulwer-Lytton's first big hit, tells the story of an upper class dandy, and thus reflects the language (like bugaboos and bulkies for the police) and fashion of the hip set of the day, and apparently even set one fashion trend, the wearing of black evening wear by men, which has been the norm ever since the novel came out. So you can thank Bulwer-Lytton next time you don a tuxedo to avoid the fashion bugaboos, I mean, police!

On the topic of burglars and burglar alarms, that word comes into English from the medieval Latin word burgus which is itself a loan from a Germanic root that means “fortified place”, and is related to the words burg and borough, and might be more distantly related through Proto-Indo-European to the word “fort”, which came into English through French, from the Latin adjective fortis meaning "strong". And speaking of Latin, I mentioned the use of guard animals, most commonly guard dogs, but there is also the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy.

I mentioned that Edwin Holmes came up with the idea of using existing telegraph lines to connect his burglar alarms to a central monitoring station. In fact the idea of a central monitoring station was probably first developed by Edward A. Calahan, but Calahan's idea was that the houses would have emergency call boxes, rather than window and door sensors, as in Holmes's burglar alarm system. The story goes that Calahan came up with the idea after the president of the company that was formed to implement his previous invention was burgled. And that previous invention was also an adaptation of telegraph technology, the stock ticker, which transmitted stock and gold prices over the telegraph system and printed them out on ticker tape. (Presumably Calahan wasn't given a ticker tape parade for his work.) As it happens, the clockwork powered telegraph printing system necessary for Calahan's stock ticker had been invented by our old friend David Edward Hughes (inventor of the carbon microphone). It looks a bit like some outlandish musical instrument:

And finally a little more on the early history of patents. While authorship was important in the ancient world, control of intellectual property, the example of Sybaris not withstanding, was generally not. Craft secrecy, however, was important in the middle ages, particularly in the context of the craft guilds. Apparently the earliest mention of the windmill in Europe is in a diploma in 1105 CE granting the right to build them in a particular area, but it's unclear if this was as a newly invented technology. Certainly monopolies could be granted in the middle ages, but the earliest monopoly for a newly invented technology seems to be the Brunalleschi patent mentioned in the video. The penalty for violating Brunalleschi's patent, by the way, was burning. Harsh! The systematic patent laws that started in Venice before spreading throughout Europe seem to have been initially particularly associated with glassblowing technology and techniques. The first patents in England came under Queen Elizabeth I, while the idea that a patent needs to have an element of novelty seems to have been introduced by King Henry II of France. Design patents also date back to the early modern period with a patent for italic type granted in 1502 to the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who also invented the modern use of the semicolon and the modern appearance of the comma -- not a bad hat trick! The earliest literary reference to a patent seems to be in Ben Jonson's comedic play The Devil is an Ass, which makes fun of "projectors", that is inventors/swindlers. One of the character, Meercraft, is trying to get patents for individually wrapped hygienic toothpicks with instructions for their use, and forks, which were only then being imported from Italy into England. Jonson seems to be poking fun at real-life travel writer Thomas Coryate who did in fact introduce the fork to England, as well as the word "umbrella", both from Italy. For importing the fork, by the way, Coryate was given the highly amusing Latin nickname 'Furcifer'.

A last note, I'm grateful to my friend Madhava for pointing out to me Linus's Law that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". However, if there are any bugs in the video or this blog post, the fault is entirely mine.

Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Wæs þu hal! This week we have a very special Christmas episode of The Endless Knot all about the word Yule:

The etymological key to everything I talk about in this video is the two possible sources for Germanic word (and festival) Yule. Yule might come from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to turn', in which case it's referring to the turn of the year that is the winter solstice, or from  a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to speak' and by extension 'to joke' or 'to play', by way of the sense of festivities and celebration. Together these sources highlight Yule as a time associated with fertility festivals and celebration, which are exactly the elements of the Germanic Yule that are now commonly associated with Christmas. These elements work well symbolically with the Christian story of the birth of Christ, of course, which also has the theme of the renewal of life. And indeed it was a very intentional decision to borrow from various pagan traditions and incorporate these elements into a Christian holiday. For instance, Pope Gregory the Great advised Augustine the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons, to adapt and adopt the Germanic customs and places of worship into the Christian tradition, rather than to try to simply suppress them. I also point out the possible etymological connection between Yule and jolly, as in the "Jolly old elf" of Clement Clark Moore's Twas the Night before Christmas (more properly A Visit from St Nicholas), and the fact that "elf" too is a Germanic word and pagan connection. You can learn more about the elf etymology in my earlier video on the word "Album":

I was reminded of another medieval literary connection here (in addition to Beowulf and the Norse stuff), in a Twitter conversation with my friend and colleague Damian (@IPFWMedieval), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is also set around Christmas and New Year's, and also draws on the imagery of the evergreen holly. In fact there are a number of parallels between Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the Green Knight lining up well with Grendel (and the Grinch). And similarly to Beowulf, the Old Norse sagas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features a strange supernatural being visiting the hall at Christmas and causing trouble. And evidently Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) was a student at Oxford University while JRR Tolkien, a notable scholar and translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf (as well as Lord of the Rings author), held the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Thanks for the extra connection, Damian! If you want to read more about the Grinch/Grendel link, there is at least one article published on the topic (to my knowledge), Robert L. Schichler's "Understanding the Outsider: Grendel, Geisel, and the Grinch". You can find the full bibliographic info for this article, along with other useful sources on the various topics in this video, on the show notes page. Though I couldn't work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into this "Yule" video, I have covered the poem in some detail in an earlier video called "A Detective Story":

One last programming note: I'll be taking a bit of time off over the holidays, and regular video releases will resume on January 13th, 2015. So in the meantime, Happy Yule! And as a final Christmas present, here are a number of other fun and interesting videos about Christmas with an etymological or historical angle!