Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Trick or Treat!

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2011

In the course of writing a Visual Thesaurus column on aspects of the word Halloween, I looked into the history of trick or treat. Some of the questions I had about it were:

  • When did it become a verb, as in trick-or-treating?
  • If its origin is indeed a threat, why is the threat said first and the demand second? That is, why isn’t it Treat or trick, following the same demand-punishment template as Your money or your life or Truth or consequences?
  • What’s with the kids in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown saying “Tricks or treats”? Is that a 1950s/60s thing, or a regional thing?

In the book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, I learned that trick-or-treating in the United States began only in the 1920s, or possibly slightly earlier, on a regional basis. Skal adds that it “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property-protection strategy during the late Depression” (54). The sugar rationing of World War II put a damper on it, but trick-or-treating really took off in the post-war years.

The earliest attestation of trick or treat in the OED is from right after the war, in a 1947 article in American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”

However, Skal has the phrase eight years earlier, in a 1939 article in the same magazine. It’s not talking about trick-or-treating as we know it, but as sort of a password for a Halloween party, put on for the same purpose of allaying Halloween vandalism. Skal writes that this attestation is “apparently the first time ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States” (p. 53):

…they found our front door open and a jolly Jack o’lantern grinning from a window at them. Seeing me, they summoned nerve to speak the age-old salutation of “Trick-or-Treat!”

Skal notes that even though the article refers to Trick or treat as an “age-old” greeting, it gives no support for this claim.

Returning to the post-war years, Skal writes that the Donald Duck cartoon “Trick or Treat” in the early 1950s helped popularize trick-or-treating on a national scale.

All this agrees with the picture you get from the Google Ngram viewer:

So how soon did trick or treat become a verb? The earliest example in the OED is from 1950:

So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating.

As for the order trick or treat instead of treat or trick, as far as I can tell, the trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or treat doesn’t have a front vowel followed by a back vowel: [I] adn [i] are both front vowels. And the initial consonants are the same, so whatever explanation you have for hanky panky instead of *panky hanky won’t apply. I tried to think if other common words or phrases had the [I]-[i] sequence, and didn’t come up with much: snickersnee (a kind of sword) striptease, and Mister T, but that’s about it.

Tricks or treats actually antedates trick or treat, as far as I’ve been able to determine. In Google Books, I found it in a 1938 issue of The Alpha Phi Quarterly:

Yes, it is Hallowe’en — the time for “tricks or treats.” But as far as Alpha Phi life is concerned, we know it holds only treats.

In an archive of Peanuts comics, I found that Charles Schulz had his characters saying “Tricks or Treats” all through the 1950s (sometimes with the addendum “Money or eats!”), though once he introduces storylines involving Linus and the Great Pumpkin in the 1960s, you don’t see it so much. Jumping forward to 1993, though, there’s a Sunday strip with Linus and Sally in the pumpkin patch, with Snoopy making an appearance at the end. In Snoopy’s thought balloon is “Trick or Treat!”, so somewhere along the way Schulz fell into line with the rest of the country. You can see in the Ngram View above that tricks or treats peaked in the mid-1950s.

One last item for those who read this far: Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat! is noted as early as 1966 in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. As for the further extension involving the pulling down of underwear, I can only date that back to my childhood in the 1970s.

11 Responses to “Trick or Treat!”

  1. Imagine what rhymes might have come out of “treat or trick”!

    “Treat or trick, smell my…”

    On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t.

    • Never mind that the “treat or trick” rhyme also limits the kind of (edible) treats the speaker can strong-arm out of the hearer: “give me something good to…lick?” If the foul-mouthed kid is lucky enough not to get yanked away and punished, he’d better hope his target is handing out lollipops!

  2. Jonathon said

    I wondered about “tricks or treats” last year while watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” last year.

  3. EP said

    I’m for that “money or eats” option. No threats involved at all and the halloweiners can’t lose.

  4. It seems intuitively obvious to me that “trick or treat” is preferred over “treat or trick” because the vowel of longer duration goes at the end. But I don’t know how to back that up with evidence.

    • Neal said

      I know that vowels before voiced consonants are longer in duration than vowels before voiceless consonants. I know that vowels in open syllables are longer in duration than vowels in closed syllables. But I haven’t heard of vowels before [t] being longer than vowels before [k], or [I] being longer than [i]. I might have to record myself saying “trick or treat” and checking it out with Praat.

      • I think you’ve got [I] and [i] the wrong way round there … but the fact that /i/ (as in “treat”) is generally longer in duration than /I/ (as in “trick”) is well-established, at least for dialects I’m familiar with. In fact, some phonemic transcription schemes use /i:/ as the symbol for the former phoneme (with the length marker considered part of the symbol).

        I’m surprised if this is not true in your dialect, and am already surprised you’re not aware of it. In “trick or treat” the effect will be masked somewhat by the shortening effect of the following unvoiced consonant, but should still be evident.

      • Neal said

        Oh, right: I should have written, “[i] being longer than [I].” Anyway, yeah, I guess it’s one of the things I should have remembered from my phonetics classes, but for whatever reason, that one must have gotten away from me. I’ve looked at some introductory phonetics material since then, and they’ve confirmed that [i] will be longer than [I]. As it interacts with what comes in the syllable coda, a word like trick /trIk/ will be the shortest, followed by trig /trIg/ and treat /trit/, which are nearly the same length. Longest of all will be /i/ followed by a voiced consonant or in an open syllable, as in tree(d) /tri(d)/.

      • dw said

        Historically, and still today in many varieties of English, the “trick” vowel is short and the “treat” vowel is long (at least when compared in the same phonological environment). For example, in my accent (I’m originally from England and spoke an accent close to RP) “beat” is about twice as long as “bit”. The same length relationship, roughly, would hold between “trick” and “treat” (since they’re both before voiceless stops).

        In North America this length relationship is often weakened, and in American Southern accents it’s usually completely lost, often as a result of diphthongization of the historically short vowels, so that “bit” ends up something like [bɪət] rather than [bɪt].

        Btw, a great website for entering IPA is

  5. ProsWrite said

    Reblogged this on Pros Write and commented:
    In case any of you are wondering where the phrase originated today . . .

  6. Neal said

    The earliest attestation has now moved to 1927, in an Edmonton newspaper, I learned here. This story quotes the original article:

    Halloween provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front, demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat”, to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.” From ‘Trick or Treat’ is Demand,” Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta), Nov. 4, 1927

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