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Who Is The “Jack” In The Term “Jack-o’-lantern,” Anyway?

Every October, thousands of Americans scoop out the flesh of a gourd, carefully carve a haunting face into its rind, and stick a candle inside. In fact, pumpkins are so popular near Halloween, that October 26 is National Pumpkin Day.

But Halloween pumpkins aren’t just any pumpkins. These creations are called jack-o’-lanterns, and they are proudly displayed on porches and stoops across the country. These pumpkins have their own emoji too, the Jack-O’-Lantern emoji 🎃.

Which leads us to ask the question: who, or what, is the namesake of this autumn tradition?

Who are jack-o’-lanterns named for?

Both the tradition of carving a pumpkin and the name jack-o’-lantern are rooted in Irish lore and date back hundreds of years.

In the mid-1800s, young boys used hollowed-out and lit-up root vegetables to spook people. Irish legend has it that this use of jack-o’-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack.

Stingy Jack thought he had tricked the devil, but the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light. Jack’s lanterns were carved out of potatoes, turnips, and the vegetables, in Scotland and Ireland, while beets were used in England. When immigrants brought this custom to North America, pumpkins eventually became the vegetable of choice.

But the name jack has been a general term for a boy since the 1500s and for this reason, it found its way into many childhood songs and rhymes. For this reason, the British can also claim ownership to one of the original uses of the phrase jack-o’-lantern. In the 17th century, the term referred to a night watchman, a man who literally carried a lantern.

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Why is there an o’ in jack-o’-lantern?

The o’ in jack-o’-lantern is short for the word of. So the whole term is “Jack (of or with) the lantern.”

The o’ is also used in the term o’clock. O’clock is actually an abbreviation of “of the clock.” Interestingly, jack-o’-lantern is also a nickname for strange, flickering lights seen at night over wetlands or peat bogs and mistaken to be fairies or ghosts. This natural phenomenon is also called ignis fatuus, or “foolish fire,” friar’s lantern, and will-o’-the-wisp—or will (of or with) the wisp.

WATCH: Why Do We Say "Trick Or Treat" On Halloween?

How else is the term jack-o’-lantern used?

There’s also a dangerous version of a jack-o’-lantern. A poisonous luminescent orange fungus, Omphalotus olearius, is commonly known as the jack-o’-lantern mushroom! Found in woodland areas of Europe, this glowing growth clusters at the base of decomposing hardwood tree stumps. While the mushroom won’t produce a strong enough glow to power your next hollowed-out gourd, it is a great conversation starter at your next jack-o’-lantern carving party.

Dust off the cobwebs on another tradition of Halloween-time: Trick-or-treating. Do you know where this sweet and sneaky tradition came from? 

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