Lexicon Valley

What Do You Call the Night Before Halloween?

Mischief was had.

Courtesy of shortfatkid/Flickr

If you’re like the majority of Americans, you don’t have a special term for the night before Halloween, and it may not even have occurred to you that anyone does. But for a substantial minority of people, about 25 percent of respondents to the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, the night before Halloween most certainly does have a name. They just can’t agree on what it is.

The two leading contenders are mischief night and devil’s night, which were chosen, respectively, by 9 percent and 8 percent of survey-takers and cluster in different geographical regions. Mischief night is popular around New Jersey and Pennsylvania while devil’s night is popular in Michigan. Less popular overall, but still quite common in some areas, are cabbage night (1 percent, around Vermont and New Hampshire) and devil’s eve (1 percent, Arkansas and elsewhere). Another 4 percent of respondents from around the country say that they call the night before Halloween something else entirely, such as gate night, trick night, or goosy night.

For many who have a distinct name for it, the night before Halloween seems to correspond with petty vandalism—the “trick” in trick-or-treat—commonly smashing pumpkins, egging cars, and toilet-papering houses. Not that places without a name for it necessarily have less vandalism. Anecdotally, I’ve never had a special word for “Halloween Eve” and any pumpkin-smashing I’ve seen generally happens on Halloween itself. But then, I’m Canadian, so who knows.

Here’s a map of who says what where from the Cambridge survey (or you can click through for an interactive version):

Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes

Interestingly, when it comes to terms for the night before Halloween, people tend not to realize that there are alternatives elsewhere. Unlike, say, “pop” versus “soda,” where a brief visit to another part of the country is enough to encounter the other word on a menu or get a confused look as you place your order, Halloween is an especially local holiday. You talk about it primarily with your neighbors and teachers, so you can live your entire life without ever realizing that your goosy is someone else’s mischief.

In any case, it would appear that devil’s night, mischief night, and the like might all be on the way out, based on a previous dialect survey that concluded in 2003. At the time, 70 percent of people said that they didn’t have a word for the night before Halloween, but in the decade since that’s crept up to 74 percent, while scores for both mischief night and devil’s night have edged down. Here’s the older map:

Harvard Dialect Survey

So, what do you call the night before Halloween? And if you’re one of the 4 percent whose name for it isn’t on the survey, what other terms have you heard? The Cambridge survey is still accepting responses, so you can weigh in here, and then tell us your devil’s night/mischief night/I’ve never heard of this night stories in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter. But stay away from your neighbors’ pumpkins.

Correction, Oct. 28, 2014: This post originally misstated where mischief night and devil’s night are popular. Mischief night is popular around New Jersey and Pennsylvania while devil’s night is popular in Michigan.