Happy Halloween!

Or should it be Happy Hallowe’en?

Here comes a confession: I spell it both ways. (Spooky!) Of course I know that professional writers are supposed to be consistent. I don’t care.

I also know that my hero Bernard Shaw hated apostrophes and dropped them whenever he could get away with it. I can confidently state that he would never have written our October 31 holiday as Hallowe’en. I still don’t care.

Clearly an explanation is in order. (Trick or treat!) I use the apostrophe in my personal writing – this blog, for example. Letters. Emails. But I omit the apostrophe whenever I’m writing for publication. For example, my husband writes a Hallowe’en column for the newspaper every October. I’m the one who types that column – sans the apostrophe.

So what’s the difference? Publishers have style sheets that dictate writing practices. As a professional writer, I respect those rules.

In fact I think dropping the apostrophe in Hallowe’en is generally a good idea. Let’s make spelling as easy as possible!

But I also love the way that English tries to hold onto its history as long as possible. Our language is full of silent letters and other quirks that remind us of a word’s origin or point to a long-forgotten pronunciation.

Knight used to be pronounced in all of its consonant glory (plus there used to be an “e” at the end – and that was pronounced too). Debt has a silent “b” that was added during a time in British history when people believed that Latin was the perfect language. “Debt” in Latin had a “b” (debitum), so it was added to the English spelling as a silent letter.

And then there’s Hallowe’en, one of my favorite holidays. (I always wore a costume when I was teaching, even when I worked in the prison system.)

For many years the Christian church observed November 1 as the feast of All Hallows. (Today it’s called “All Saints Day.”) You’ll recognize hallow as the word for “holy” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name.” So “All Hallows” was a day to honor all the holy people who had gone to their eternal reward.

But wait – there’s more! The Christian church often observes the day before a holy day in some special way. It’s called the “eve,” or “evening,” or “even” (giving us New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve).

The Eve of All Hallows – Hallow even, or Hallowe’en – was a night when all the spirits of the dead were thought to walk the earth – evil ones as well as the good. If you were a teenager who loved mischief, Hallowe’en was an opportunity to knock over your neighbor’s outhouse or throw paint at someone’s front door. Nobody was going to blame you for what happened: it was the evil spirits!

Have a wicked Hallowe’en. (Or Halloween.)

Halloween pumpkin

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