Ah, definitions

Dictionary.com defines Halloween as such: “the evening of October 31; the eve of All Saints’ Day; Allhallows Eve: observed esp. by children in costumes who solicit treats, often by threatening minor pranks.”

I like the idea of children being the main people to observe a holiday. I’m interested in the fact that this definition makes children sound a little menacing, especially because of the diction: “solicit” and “threatening”.

Another definition on Dictionary.com comes from the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines it as “October 31, celebrated in the United States, Canada, and the British Isles by children going door to door while wearing costumes and begging treats and playing pranks.”

Here, I like the word “begging”. I can just see the small children knocking on a door and then getting on their knees to plead for candy, any candy, just something for them to eat. And then turning around and playing a prank on the same people they from whom they begged.

Merriam-Webster Online defines it as: “October 31 observed especially with dressing up in disguise, trick-or-treating, and displaying jack-o-lanterns during the evening.”

This is the most neutral and non-threatening of all the definitions I found.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, keeps it simple by defining Halloween as “the eve of All Hallows’ or All Saints’; the last night of October.”

There is no mention of small children or treats, which at first, made me think that the OED is remaining more objective. But perhaps, instead, they are actually leaving out a huge element of how Halloween is defined by most people. They do have a definition of “trick-or-treat” under “trick” that describes it as “a traditional formula used at Hallowe’en by children who call on houses threatening to play a trick unless given a treat or present.”

Once again, this definition emphasizes the threatening aspect of Halloween, which I usually consider to be part of an older sense of the word. I don’t think of any children nowadays actually threatening a trick if they don’t get a treat. Maybe I just hung out with the good crowd on Halloween (i.e. my parents).



  1. You might look up Samhein, the Celtic end/beginning of the year, which coincides with Halloween. My WR 222 class just finished writing arguments of definition – more or mostly less successfully, as they had trouble keeping themselves to the definition rather than the topic. Eg. What IS Halloween versus whether it is the work of the devil or capitalism (which might be the same?).

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