Trick or treat? Some Halloween revisions to OED

Trick or treat? Some Halloween revisions to OED

In most of the places where it is celebrated, this year’s Halloween will be very different to previous years’. One of the activities likely to be hit hardest by Coronavirus restrictions and social distancing measures is also the one that has—along with pumpkin carving—become one of the most popular Halloween traditions: trick or treating (defined by OED as ‘the action or practice, usually by children, of going from door to door at Halloween asking for sweets or candy by saying ‘trick or treat’, typically while wearing themed costumes’).

In the past few weeks, we’ve been blowing the artfully arranged cobwebs off our treatment of trick or treat in response to a suggestion from OED consultant and regular contributor Barry Popik, who has researched the early history of the phrase in North America, identifying its apparent origins in the Prairie Provinces of Canada in the 1920s—origins which may come as a surprise to anyone on this side of the Atlantic who views the growing popularity of trick-or-treating in Britain and Ireland as a sign of creeping Americanization.

The earliest firm evidence for the phrase is, as you might expect, for the interjection itself, as used by children calling at houses to ask for candy and other sweet treats on Halloween. An article in the Calgary Daily Herald on 3 November 1927 reported that in Blackie, Alberta, that year:

The very young who wandered in droves from door to door, heavily disguised and demanding ‘trick or treat.’ To treat was to be untricked, and the youthful hold-up men soon returned home bowed down with treats

The etymology for our revised entry includes earlier evidence for the phrase ‘treat or trick’ used in the same way in 1924, and even earlier evidence (from the previous year) that ‘tricks’ and ‘treats’ were viewed as part and parcel of the Halloween experience. Both these earlier quotations embody concern about the threatened—and apparently often perpetrated, tricks:

1923 Morning Leader (Regina, Sask.2 Nov. 3/5 Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here. ‘Treats‘ not ‘tricks‘ were the order of the evening.

1924 Red Deer (Alberta) Advocate 7 Nov. 4/2 When..public buildings..are molested with no option for ‘Treat or Trick’ we can not see where either fun or trick is enjoyed by the participants.

Our first evidence showing the phrase moving beyond a simple reported question (or threat) also shows how the commercial possibilities of Halloween trick-or-treating were being exploited almost from the outset. On 25 October 1928, an advertisement for Porter’s Pharmacy in the Advocate newspaper in Red Deer, Alberta, invited potential customers to ‘see all the funny faces, masks, hats, pumpkins,… [and] party novelties’ in its Halloween display, and offered—among other ‘Halloween candy specials’—‘Trick-or-Treat Candy’ at 35c per pound, an opportunity to give those ringing the doorbell on and around 31 October ‘better candy, at the same price’.

Examples of the phrase used as a standalone name for the tradition are rare before the second half of the 1930s, and we’ve included two early quotations of this kind in the revised entry, showing both the novelty of the idea of trick-or-treating to audiences in much of the United States, and the extent to which it was already viewed as a venerable tradition in Canada:

1937 Calgary Herald 30 Oct. (Mag. section) 23/5 Mother will have stacked the larder with apples, peanuts, popcorn, candy and cookies, prepared to give ransom in the time honored custom of ‘trick or treat’.

1938 Los Angeles Times 30 Oct. ii. 8/2 ‘Trick or treat!’ is the Halloween hijacking game hundreds of Southern Californian youngsters will play tomorrow night as they practice streamlined versions of traditional Allhallows Eve pranks.

It seems from the newspaper evidence that the practice of asking householders for candy with the phrase ‘trick or treat’ had been spreading through the northwestern U.S. from Canada in the 1930s, with evidence of the interjection from Montana beginning in 1934, Washington state in 1935, and Oregon in 1936.

It’s the last of these states that provides us with our first evidence for trick-or-treater from 1937, in a report of damage done—apparently—by disgruntled candy hunters in Corvallis:

1937 Corvallis (Oregon) Gaz.-Times 1 Nov. 1/6 Mrs. E. W. Warrington..[reported] a window..broken by some boys throwing slightly old tomatoes… They were ‘trick or treaters’, she believed, who hadn’t gotten any treats.

In fact, apart from that first segue from interjection to noun for trick or treat, all the linguistic developments of the phrase and its derivatives seem to have taken place on American, rather than Canadian, soil, with our first quotations for trick or treat night coming from Washington in 1940, the two senses of the verb trick-or-treat coming from Oregon in 1943 and Wisconsin in 1944. Washington also gives us our first evidence of trick-or-treating the noun, with ‘trick or treating parties’ recorded from Utah 1953, while the spread of the custom by the middle of the fifties is signalled by our earliest quotation for the adjective trick-or-treating coming from the East Coast, in a Delaware newspaper in 1954, warning ‘trick or treating youngsters’ to ‘wrap up warmly under their Halloween costumes…, because a chilly week-end is forecast’.

From the 1980s, trick-or-treating has become increasingly common outside of North America, and it’s from that point that we begin to see a rapid increase in the use of these phrases in Britain and Ireland, in some places competing with earlier regional traditions of dressing up and/or begging for treats at or around Halloween (such as ‘guising’ in Scotland).

Earlier evidence of the phrase ‘trick or treat’ and its various derivatives and variants might still be lurking in newspapers and other texts, waiting to say ‘Boo!’ to unsuspecting researchers. If you find any such evidence, please let us know, so we can keep our entries up to date.

If you’d like to learn more about Halloween and its history and customs in OED, you can read this piece by our consultant editor Henry Hitchings. In the meantime, please enjoy our newly revised and updated entries, and have a safe, scary, and enjoyable Halloween.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.