Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wordplay Wednesday™ October 14, 2015 – Jack-o-Who?

Jack-o’-Who? What?

You may think my choice for the fourth week of Weird Halloween Words is rather banal and too commonplace to be weird. Au contraire my little chickadees (a French tribute to relatives heading to Paris* this week!).
All About Pumpkins

JACK-O’-LANTERN (jakʹɘ lantʹɘrn): n. a hollow pumpkin cut to look like a face and usually illuminated inside as by a candle, used as a decoration at Halloween.

Few call it a Jack-o’-lantern anymore. That’s really a shame, because Jack-o’-lantern is way more creative and interesting than “Halloween pumpkin” – which we have come to assume is carved.

Using the name, Jack, probably stepped on someone’s politically correct toes, so the term fell out of favor. But what is a Jack-o’-lantern, really?
Wiki origins makes several suggestions, from a quaint term used as early as the 1660s for will-o’-the-wisp, an eerie light over the bogs, to an 1837 account of a Limerick pub’s gourd carving contest, with the prize bestowed on the “best crown of Jack McLantern.”

My favorite Jack-o’-lantern legend told by several sources is one in which we impish Irish are (again) telling centuries old tales.
Turnips turn ghoulish

Many brought over as slaves, our ancestors looked for ways to preserve their Halloween (Samhain / harvest) festivals, and substituted the more scarce turnips and such used for celebrations, with the plentiful pumpkins. Trailing along with the Celtic festivals, came the legend of “Stingy Jack.”

Now Jack, being a cunning old coot, thought he could make a deal with the devil. Silly boy. 

Devilish pumpkin carving
You know the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” For Jack, the devil added: “The second time, I get even.”

Irish Jack hoodwinked the devil a couple of times – the first was over a drink, of course! So the devil “… sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way,” says’s entertaining account of the legend. “Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with [it] ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as ‘Jack of the Lantern,’ and then, simply ‘Jack O’Lantern.’”

With pumpkins presenting the carved object of choice in America, they also became a household sign of protection, “… placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.”
Respect the vegetable

And you thought it was just one big-ol’ pumpkin-carving contest.

Jack o' the lantern! Joan the wad**,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather's bad
     ~ Cornish folklorist Dr. Thomas Quiller Couch (d. 1884)


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* Enjoy the 1951 trailer for American in Paris film!
** Another term for Will-o’-the-wisp.

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