18 Spooky Halloween Phrases From Around the U.S.

Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween has been celebrated in the United States since the 1800s, thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought over their All Hallows' Eve traditions. So it's no surprise that sayings in American English have risen around the holiday, including these 18 spooky regionalisms we’ve gathered in our continued partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. Holly Eve

In Arkansas or Missouri in the 1930s, West Virginia in the 1940s, or Pennsylvania in the 1950s, you might have referred to Halloween as Holly Eve. Hence, says DARE, a Holly Eve-er is “one who goes out on Halloween.”

2. Poke of Moonshine

Another name for the jack o' lantern, at least in 1930s Connecticut. A peak in the Adirondacks shares the name and, according to The New York Times, it might come from the Algonquin Indian words pohqui, meaning "broken," and moosie, meaning "smooth," possibly referring to "the level summit and stunning east-facing cliffs.” In the case of a jack o’ lantern, it could possibly refer to its carved and intact surfaces. In South Carolina, to move like a poke of moonshine is to move slowly and lazily.

3. False Face

The term false face originated in the late 18th century, according to DARE, to mean a mask in general, and in the early 1900s came to refer specifically to a Halloween mask. A 1911 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Halloween Masks—We have that false face you want for Tuesday night, grotesque and funny.”

The term seems to have been popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, with DARE quotes from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas. One individual states that their grandmother, who was born in New York City in the 1880s, used “‘false face’ (stress on ‘false’) as her ordinary word for ‘Halloween mask,’” and while the mask “didn’t have to be worn specifically on or for Halloween … it did have to cover the entire face.”

4. and 5. Help the Poor / Soap or Eats

While trick or treat is the norm for bonbon-begging, in 1930s and '40s Detroit, you might have also heard help the poor. Over in parts of California, Ohio, and Minnesota, the candy call might have been soap or eats or soap or grub. According to a Wisconsin resident, soap has to do with “threatening to soap windows” if goodies aren’t given.

6. Penny Night

Another trick or treat alternative is penny night, at least in southwest Ohio. The term also refers to the Halloween celebration itself. We're not sure what pennies have to do with it except as sweets stand-ins.

7. Beggar's Night

Parts of the North and North Midland— especially Ohio and Iowa—call Halloween like it is: beggars’ night. “Beggars’ Night, how ’bout a bite?” you might have heard in the Buckeye State. Beggars' night could be celebrated on “one or more days” the week before Halloween, much to the annoyance of several of those quoted in DARE. From a 1936 issue of the Piqua Daily Call in Ohio: “If the kids would get organized and pick on one particular date for their Beggar’s Night, we could brace ourselves for the onslaught.”

One Ohio resident said they had beggar’s night on October 30, on which they said, “Please help the poor,” while on Halloween they said, “Trick or treat.” The same practice also occurred on Thanksgiving eve, according to quotes from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York City.

8. Devil's Night

As a Michigan resident, you might have called the night before Halloween devil’s night, during which, according to quotes in DARE, kids might vandalize and set fire to abandoned buildings. In 1995, Detroit rechristened devil's night as Angel's Night, a community-organized event in which tens of thousands of volunteers "help patrol and surveil the streets during the days leading up to Halloween."

9. Mischief Night

To New Jerseyans, Halloween eve has always been mischief night, on which you could expect to get TP’d, egged, or spray-painted. According to quotes in DARE, additional activities might include doorbell ringing, gate removing (hence, gate night in some parts of the Northeast), car window soaping, pumpkin stealing, and porch furniture moving.

In England, mischief night refers to the prank-filled evenings of April 30 (May Day eve), October 30, or November 4, the night before Guy Fawkes Day. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the term is from 1830, while DARE’s is from 1977. It’s not clear exactly when the New Jersey/southeastern Pennsylvania meaning of mischief night originated. The earliest record we could find was from 1947 in an article, “Passaic Takes the 'Mischief' Out of ‘Mischief Night.’”

A variation on mischief night might be mystery night, attested in Essex and northern Middlesex counties, as well as other parts of north and central Jersey.

10. and 11. Goosey Night / Picket Night

Garden State alternatives to mischief night include goosey night and picket night. While picket night might come from “the custom of producing noise by running a stick along a picket fence,” according to Lexical Variation in New Jersey by Robert Foster, it’s unclear where goosey night comes from. If we had to guess, perhaps from goose, meaning to poke or startle.

12. Cabbage Night

In some northern parts of the United States, October 30 is known as cabbage night, during which, according to DARE, “young people throw cabbages and refuse on people’s porches, and play other pranks.” Why cabbages? It might have to do with an old Scottish tradition in which young women would pull up cabbages to inspect their stalks. The thickness of the stalks supposedly predicted whether their future husbands would be thin or portly. Then they would inexplicably hurl the vegetables at neighbors' homes.

13. Clothesline Night

In parts of 1950s Vermont, clotheslines were apparently the victim of much TP'ing on Halloween eve. Hence, clothesline night.

14. and 15. Corn Night / Doorbell Night

Corn was the projectile of choice in Ohio areas in the late 1930s. One resident remembered the custom of celebrating the night before Halloween by chucking “dried, shelled corn” at porches. In other parts of the Buckeye State, ringing and running is preferred on what’s known as doorbell night.

16. Light Night

Over in New York, mischief makers would “fling rocks at bare street lights,” says one resident—hence, light night.

17. Moving Night

After a raucous moving night in Baltimore, you might find anything not nailed down—including gates, flower pots, and porch furniture—moved to a neighboring yard, down the block, or even on the next block.

18. Ticktack Night

The cabbage night equivalent in regions including Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Ticktack are various “homemade noisemakers used to make rapping or other annoying sounds against a window or door as a prank,” especially around Halloween, as well as the prank itself. In parts of Ohio, one resident said, the ticktack noises were from the sound of corn being thrown at windows.

According to Foster’s Lexical Variation in New Jersey, “Mercer County is the home of Tick Tack Night,” where the name is sometimes reinterpreted as “Tic Tac Toe Night” and some pranksters believed they were “called upon to draw tic tac toe diagrams on houses and walks."

The Best Place to Park at the Mall, According to Science

Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s Black Friday, and you are entering the battlefield: a mall parking lot. You’re determined to nail that doorbuster deal, and quantities are limited. The field is already full of other combatants. You must find the perfect parking spot.

Do you grab the first one you see, or drive as close to the mall as you can and hover? Or, do you choose a tactic that lies somewhere between?

Parking at the mall has long frustrated drivers and taxed the minds of traffic engineers—but after working on the problem for three years, physicists Sidney Redner of the Santa Fe Institute and Paul Krapivsky of Boston University have gotten closer to a winning strategy. “There are lots of studies of parking lots, but it’s just that they’re so complicated, you don’t get any insight into what’s actually happening,” Redner tells Mental Floss.

Redner and Krapivsky, whose work employs statistical physics to make sense of large systems, simplified the messy dynamics of a parking lot by modeling it with a one-dimensional grid of cells, each representing a parking space. They tested three simple, yet realistic, parking strategies using basic probability theory. Their model tested the following strategies to see which one resulted in least time spent walking and driving in the parking lot:

Meek Strategy: Meek drivers park in the first open space they see, however distant it is from the mall. As a result, they often spend the most time walking to and from the mall.

Prudent Strategy: Prudent drivers look for the first open spot but then keep driving toward the mall. They continue to drive until they see a parked car and then park in the best open spot between that first open spot and that first parked car. There may be a block of open spaces between the first open space and the first parked car. From that block of open spaces, they choose the one closest to the mall.

Optimistic Strategy: Optimistic drivers drive as close to the mall as possible and look for a parking space close to the entrance. If they see one, they grab it. If there are none, they backtrack and choose the first open space they see. Optimistic drivers probably spend the most time driving and the least time walking. In the worst-case scenario, they end up parking back where a meek driver would have parked.

Naturally cautious drivers are more likely to default to the meek mode, while aggressive drivers often use the optimistic strategy, well, aggressively. And most drivers have tried something like the prudent method.

So, which is your best bet in a crowded mall parking lot this holiday season?

In the experiments, the prudent strategy fared best, followed closely by the optimistic strategy. The meek strategy finished a distant third (“It’s hard to comprehend just how bad it is,” says Krapivsky, a self-described meek driver).

And even better: The more crowded the lot, the better the prudent strategy works, he adds.

One clear takeaway from the study is that meek drivers may want to ramp up their parking skills before going to the mall. “You don't want to park on the very outskirts of the lot, like a mile away from the stores. You want to go to the first place there’s an open spot and park somewhere in that first open area,” Redner says. They published their findings in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics [PDF].

The researchers say this is the best of the strategies they tested, but it has its limitations. It does not take into consideration competition among a sea of drivers all looking for parking spaces at the same time, and it doesn’t include (perhaps optimistically) the psychological aspects of operating a vehicle. “We are not rational when we are driving,” Krapivsky tells Mental Floss.

The researchers’ one-dimensional grid model also assumed that there would be one car at a time entering the lot through one entrance, unlike messier lots in the real world, where many cars enter from a multitude of entrances.

The optimal parking strategy, one that would best all others every time, has yet to be found. In their research, though, Redner and Krapivsky are homing in on one that integrates the more complicated aspects of parking.

For now, science says prudence is a virtue in the parking lot. And while the meek might inherit the Earth, they certainly won’t find the best parking space at the mall.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images
Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25 and ends on January 5. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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