- jack o’lantern
- n. A vegetable, usually a pumpkin, but alternatively a turnip, carved into the form of a face and lighted within by a candle. Associated chiefly with the holiday Halloween.
Every year around Halloween, we’re bombarded with images of glowing pumpkins, traditionally with faces but more recently with flair and filigree—and sometimes presidential candidates. I’m also willing to bet that many of you, like me, were sick to death of how most elementary schools would dredge up the same miserable Halloween activities, including but not limited to candy distribution, costume contests, and trivia about the origins of Halloween—specifically its less-occult facets, such as the jack o’lantern.
The making of lanterns out of vegetables is a very old practice indeed, and not limited to large gourds: historically, the rutabaga, the mangelwurzel1, and the turnip were all favorites for those inclined to vegetable craftwork. The Jack o’lantern as we know it today (hollowed vegetable with light source) is usually attributed to an old Irish folk tale in which a young man tricks the devil into an oblique kind of immortality, the end result of which is that his spirit roams the earth forever, with an undying ember placed inside of a turnip2. This person, ostensibly named Jack, became Jack of the Lantern, or, shortened in the wont of the Irish, Jack o’lantern.
The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the version use of “jack o’lantern” as a carved pumpkin to 1837, specifically an Americanism. The term, meaning a night watchman, is 17th-century; that time period also marked its use as synonymous with a phenomenon known as “will o’ the wisp” (or “will with the wisp” from as early as 1608). Stories similar to Jack’s occur with a main character named Will, who has… a wisp (a torch), hence the similarity. Though you may have heard of this term before, you might not be aware what it means: swamp gas. That is to say, the chemical reactions inherent to bogs and swamps creates a particular visual phenomenon, apparently common to just about every culture in history, who all formed their own folklore about it. Its Latin term was ignis fatuus, literally “foolish fire,” and dates back to the mid-16th century. Those of you who are Harry Potter fans might remember the creature Hinkypunk, which is an English regional dialect for the will o’ the wisp.
Though the term “jack o’lantern” as a label for carved pumpkins isn’t today common outside of North America, which seems to have taken the idea of Halloween as a harvest festival and run with it, it’s still used in Newfoundland in its ignis fatuus sense as “Jacky Lantern” or “Jack the Lantern.”