Issue 175, page 1

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Every year, at dead of night, bands of dwarfish ghouls roam suburban America. Grown men cower indoors with the lights turned off as the eldritch fiends rend the chill night air with their sugar-crazed howls of "trick or treat!" Yes, this Thursday is the eve of the feast of All Hallows, better known as Halloween.

Come to think of it, hallow is another of those words (like "learn by rote", "figment of the imagination", and "beck and call") which is rarely met outside of one specific idiom. So what does it mean? A hallow is a holy person or saint - which makes All Hallows precisely equivalent to All Saints, one of the feast's alternative titles. Yet other names included Hallowmass, Hallowtide, Allhallowmass, Allhallowtide, and Allhallows' Day. A spell of warm weather in late Autumn used to be called an All-Hallowen Summer, a phrase which has been replaced by the term Indian Summer.  This "Indian" is a native-American, by the way, not an Asian and nobody is quite clear how this phrase came about. The best guess is that such weather conditions were experienced when Indians still occupied the land but that still sounds pretty lame to us.

In its earliest usage (around 1300), ghastly was restricted to the kind of shocked horror evoked by the sight of slaughter and carnage. When we use the word we rarely stop to consider its parent verb to gast. This rather antiquated word means "toCharles Laughton camps it up... frighten" and is related to ghost, a word with several Germanic cognates (Old Norse geisa "to rage", Gothic usgaisjan "to terrify") but few relatives in the other Indo-European languages (Sanskrit hodas "anger" and Zend (ancient Persian) zoizda "ugly"). In its oldest English use it was considered equivalent to soul, thus to give up the ghost meant "to release the soul" or "to die". The H in ghost and ghastly was introduced in the 1500s, perhaps due to the influence of the Flemish word gheest.  

Though we now assume a witch to be female, the primary definition of witch in the Oxford English Dictionary is "A man who practises witchcraft or magic; a magician, sorcerer, wizard." Again, the derivation is obscure. Some believe the Old English wicca ("a sorcerer") to be related to such words as wise and wit while others see it it as kin to the witch (or wych) in witch elm (or wych elm). In the former case it would imply "a knowledgeable person" as in the synonymous phrase cunning-man and in the latter it would imply "one who bends [the laws of nature]", from the Teutonic root *wik-, "to bend". Plants such as witch elm and witch hazel take their names from their very pliable branches.

A water-witch (or simply a witcher) is one who uses a a forked "divining rod" made of hazel in order to find underground water. The name comes from the supposed supernatural forces involved, not from the bendiness of the hazel switch. Switch, too, is related to witch hazel, coming from Low German zwukse, "a long thin stick", and the verb zwuksen, "to bend up and down".

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Last Updated 10/28/02 09:59 PM