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November 6, 2010

No need to be scared of scarecrows, but what about hogmedods?

Daily Star

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The vestiges of Halloween linger in various front yards and on the occasional porch step, but mostly by now the skeletons and witches have retreated into storage along with the gossamer spider webs, howling mummies and detached body parts that adorned our neighborhoods so cheerfully in our annual salute to Oct. 31.

A contraction of "All Hallow Even" (or "All Hallows Eve"), the word "Halloween" is associated today almost exclusively with jack-o'-lanterns, spooky creatures, the wearing of costumes and going trick-or-treating.

At one time, however, it was more properly associated with the day that follows it, Nov. 1, which in Western Christianity is All Saints' Day (originally "All Hallows"), which itself is followed on Nov. 2 by All Souls' Day.

It's not unusual for religious observances to get tangled up with secular celebrations, and Halloween is certainly no exception. Because agriculture (especially spring planting and fall harvesting) has always been a dominant factor in secular festivities, it is no wonder that Halloween incorporates so much symbolism of the season -- think pumpkins, apples, Indian corn, dried cornstalks, scarecrows.

These are the things that survive the dismantling of Halloween and stay with us through Thanksgiving -- an unbroken thread of symbolism from autumn fun to autumn feast.

The one symbol of the fall season that has always intrigued me is the scarecrow.

For one thing, why is it a symbol of fall rather than spring? Isn't it when the seeds are sown that it's supposed to be "on the job"?

For another thing, I had no idea what the purpose of a scarecrow was when I was very, very young. I knew how to help make them from old clothes stuffed with raked autumn leaves, but I never thought they looked very scary, and I certainly didn't think they looked like crows. Mostly I thought they just dressed like my father and smelled like falling leaves. In other words, I loved them, but I didn't understand them.

The light dawned when I saw "The Wizard of Oz" at about age 6. The Scarecrow was out in the cornfield lamenting that he couldn't scare crows. Well, that explained a lot! So, the fact that all the scarecrows I'd ever seen looked more like humans than crows finally made sense. And the fact that they're supposed to scare crows away from the corn ... well, why didn't anyone tell me that before? Stupid grownups.

To be honest with you, 50 years later, I still think the word "scarecrow" is an odd one. I mean, would you call a "man-eating tiger" an "eatman"? Or a "fire-breathing dragon" a "breathefire"? Of course, if I'm that put off by the word scarecrow, I could borrow a synonymous term from Great Britain. Perhaps "murmet," from southwestern England, or how about a "hogmedod" from southeastern England? A rarer regional English term for scarecrow is "moggie" (or "moggy"), but that could be easily confused with the more common, colloquial English meaning: "a domestic cat" (which might actually do a better job scaring the crows). In Scotland, a scarecrow may go by the name "tattie bogles" or "bodach-rocais" (literally, "old man of the rooks"--rook being a Eurasian crow). I could also use the Welch "bwbach," but I'm not sure I could pronounce it.

I think I'll have to concede that the "scarecrow" is safe in my hopelessly American vocabulary. Anyway, I do so love the tales of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and it just wouldn't be the same to imagine the Yellow Brick Road being traversed by Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Hogmedod.

(By the way, a great big ghostly "Booooo" to the town of Edmeston for mandating a 4—to-6 Saturday-only trick-or-treat time. Halloween is NOT Oct. 30, even if you say it is. Any other towns perpetrate this Halloween ripoff? Well, "Booooo" to you, too.)

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.