This week with acknowledgment that there are heaps of other traditions going on this time of year, here are some etymologies for a few items on the traditional Christmas dinner table.
The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which the English mistakenly believed came from Turkey). The turkeys on many Americans’ tables today are another bird altogether, a species first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors met their first new world turkeys in 1523, and brought them back to Europe & northern Africa. Within fifty years, those new world turkeys had become the main course of choice for most British Christmas dinners.
Apparently, the ancestors of the word ham had their sights on moving up in the world.The original source of the word ham is a Proto-Germanic word for shinbone — this word became an Old English word meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, and from there we have the modern English word ham, meaning the thigh of a hog (usually salted or cured). This upward-moving definition is a good thing, as a hog’s shinbone wouldn’t be much of a holiday feast.
And of course, there’s the Christmas goose. Its source is the Proto-Indo-European word *ghans-, meaning goose. This word’s progeny form a multi-cultural (or multi-lingual, I suppose) cornucopia of words meaning goose, in all these languages: Sanskrit, Lithuanian. German, Old Frisian, Old Norse, Latin, Polish, Greek, & Old Irish.
In the 1580s, yam made its way into English through Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame) from a West African language, where nyami simply meant to eat.
And to close all this off, the word cranberry came to English in the 1640s — an American English adaptation of the German word kraanbere, a similar berry found in Europe, most likely named kraanbere because the stamen of the flower of this bere, (berry), resembles a kraan (crane).
May your holiday traditions - whatever they are - be filled with tasty food, stellar people, & general wonderfulness.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & Collins Dictionary.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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