The Origins of “Jack-o’-Lantern” and What It Means Today

, Staff Writer
Updated September 1, 2022
Jack-o'-lantern term broken down into meaning of each of its parts as explained later in article.
    halloweens pumpkin icon with Jack-o'-lantern meaning
    S-S-S / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

In any other situation, people may be extremely weirded out if you carved a face and then put a candle into a piece of food. For some reason, it’s fine when it comes to a gourd during Halloween. The humble jack-o’-lantern has become one of the standard decorations for the spooky season, but where did we even get the idea? And where did the term jack-o’-lantern come from?

What Does “Jack-o’-Lantern” Mean?

Jack-o’-lantern is a noun that refers to a lantern made from a pumpkin that is hollowed and carved (usually with a face). A candle or other lighting implement is then placed in the pumpkin, allowing for that characteristic ambient glow.

  • We spent the weekend carving jack-o’-lanterns with the kids.
  • I initially wanted my jack-o’-lantern to look scary, but my poor carving skills made it look pretty goofy.

While it’s fairly harmless now, the jack-o’-lantern initially drew on superstitions that involved guiding lost souls.


How Do You Spell “Jack-o’-Lantern”?

You might experience a ton of different spellings of jack-o’-lantern, which isn’t helped by the dozens of variations over the centuries.

  • Remember that the word is always hyphenated because it’s a full phrase meant to be taken as one word (just like the verb or adjective trick-or-treat).
  • Although jack-o-lantern is a perfectly acceptable and understandable spelling, correct spelling necessitates an apostrophe after the “O,” which signifies that it’s a shortening of of.
  • Although jack here is a reference to a proper noun, you do not need to capitalize it unless it starts a sentence.

Both Marvel and DC have had several incarnations of characters named “Jack O’Lantern.” When referencing those specific characters, follow that spelling. Dartmouth College also has a humor magazine called The Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern (shortened to the Jacko). When referring to the magazine, take note of the capitalized “O” and the lack of an apostrophe.


Where Did “Jack-o’-Lantern” Come From?

The term jack-o’-lantern, which also had variants like jack-a-lantern, jack-and-the-lantern, and jackolantern, initially referred to a night watchman in the 1660s. Jack was a common, everyday name, and night watchmen were known to carry lanterns. O’ here is a shortened form of of. Thus, you get Jack of the lantern.

By the 1670s, jack-o’-lantern was also used interchangeably with will-o’-the-wisp, a phenomenon involving lights appearing over marshes, bogs, or swamps. These lights result from the oxidation of natural chemicals, but the idea entered European folklore in reference to ghostly lights that led explorers astray. The formation of will-o’-the-wisp resembles that of jack-o’-lantern: Will is a common masculine name, and a wisp is a bundle of hay or sticks used as a torch.

In the 1830s, the U.S. started using the term "jack-o'-lantern" to describe a different type of lantern — one that was made by hollowing out a pumpkin, specifically around Halloween. Nathaniel Hawthorne first documented it in his short story collection, Twice-told Tales. 

Timeline of the origin of the term jack-o'-lantern explained in detail in the article as well as a callout to the 1950s when "jack-o-lantern became a less common spelling.
    Jack-o'-Lantern word origin timeline
    man: Kudryavtsev Pavel / iStock / Getty Images Plus / pumpkin: S-S-S / iStock / Getty Images Plus / lantern: AlexRaths / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

Can You Spell “Jack-o’-Lantern” Without the Apostrophe?

The AP Stylebook supports using an apostrophe. The spelling jack-o’-lantern is used far more often than jack-o-lantern. In most formal instances of the word, it should be spelled jack-o’-lantern.

However, considering modern usage and the way that words tend to change and evolve, most people will spell it jack-o-lantern in texts, tweets, and casual usage.

Part of that is because an apostrophe and a hyphen can look weird together. Part of that is simply how we think of the word. We already think of jack-o’-lanterns as those carved pumpkins, not “Jack of the lantern.”

Is a Jack-o'-Lantern Always a Pumpkin?

Forms of vegetable carving have been around for centuries, but the most direct predecessor to the American jack-o’-lantern likely comes from Irish traditions, specifically stories involving a man named Stingy Jack who made an unwise deal with the Devil.

These early Irish traditions used turnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables in place of modern-day pumpkins. These were known as turnip ghosts and were far more ghoulish than what you’d see from the modern jack-o’-lantern.


So Why Pumpkins?

Simply put, Irish and Scottish immigrants found them easier to carve and hollow out than root vegetables. Plus, pumpkins are historically plentiful in North America in the autumn season. If you thought dying Easter eggs was bad, imagine carving out a potato and putting a candle into it (or a carrot because the store was out of potatoes)!