Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Halloween’ Category

Trick or Trunk or Treat

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2013

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Two years ago, I wrote about the history of the phrase trick or treat. This year, I’ve become aware of a new variant on trick-or-treating. The online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the concept in an article last week:

Trunk-or-treat — the All Hallows’ Eve version of tailgating — appears to be increasing in popularity as a new holiday tradition. Adults fill their car trunks with sweets and treats, park en masse in a designated lot, and children trick-or-treat from car to car. (link)

You can find out more about it at Wikipedia, but as you can see, we’re talking about a sanitized and controlled version of trick-or-treating — even more sanitized and controlled than having official trick-or-treating hours determined by the city council. Actually, I guess it’s silly to have that complaint, because when I was writing about trick or treat, I learned that from the very beginning, trick-or-treating was an attempt to sanitize and control an uncomfortably rowdy and anti-authoritarian holiday, and a successful attempt at that. Anyway, on to the linguistics.

I learned about this kind of event a week or two ago from the marquees of two nearby churches. At the one where Adam’s Boy Scout troop meets, the sign announced that last Friday (not Halloween, you’ll note) there would be a “Trunk or Treat”. A few miles away, the other church had a similar announcement, but this one was for a “Trick or Trunk”. So which came first? And which one is more popular now? On the one hand, trunk is phonetically more like trick, with its lax vowel in the nucleus, and the final [k]. On the other hand, trunk is semantically more like treat, as refers to the source of the candy. It’s not a perfect match, of course, but still, it’s functioning to name the alternative to the trick.

Looking into the phrases’ history, I discovered that they’re not quite as recent as I thought. A ProQuest search turned up the earliest attestation I’ve found, from October 1993 in a photo caption in the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal. The event it described was held by a Mormon church, and was called a “trunk or treat”. As for trick or trunk, the earliest hit I’ve found is from 2000, via Google: “I found out about Trick or Trunk last year….” Although this quote hints at an earlier origin, it looks like the “trunk” variant of the phrase in the Wikipedia article probably is the older one. Phonetics wins!

Even so, don’t discount trick or trunk: In a Google web search, I found 388 hits for trunk or treat, and a respectable 290 for trick or trunk. (This is pared down from the original 3 million and 400,000 respective hits that Google claimed to have, before I clicked and clicked to get to the last page of hits, and Google came clean about what it actually found.)

We’ll know that trick-or-trunk-or-treating has truly arrived when stores start selling Halloween-themed trunk liners to cover up the dirt, grime, and grease spots in a typical trunk, and pre-packaged trunk-decorating kits. I wonder…

… well, there you have it. So in the words of author Lenore Skenazy:

Trunk or treat! Trunk or treat! Let’s avoid each house and street!

Posted in Halloween, Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Diachronic, Halloween, Phonetics and phonology, Variation | 11 Comments »