It's the holiday season, so here are a few Yule-related etymologies.
The word yule showed up in Old English from Old Norse long before anyone was writing down English or Norse. Yule originally referred to a two-month spate of Pre-Christian winter festivities some might refer to as heathen or pagan. Interestingly, nobody’s sure where the Old Norse got the word yule, but we do know it’s related to another winter-associated word, jolly.
The word egg-nog appeared in American English in the 1770s, a combination of egg & nog, the latter showing up in the 1690s & referring initially to a strong, old beer brewed in Norfolk. Then there is egg. The chicken-duck-or-goose sort of egg first entered the language in the mid-1300s from an Old Norse word that probably referred to birds &/or bird eggs. However, earlier than that, back in the 1200s, the Old Norse verb, egg, entered the English language, meaning to goad or incite. This fact poses the question of whether egg-nog was originally more about whipping eggs into beer or goading one’s compatriots into drinking more.
When the word wreath came to Old English it originally translated to that which is wound around. Wreath has some intriguing linguistic brethren: an Old High German word meaning twisted, a Frisian & an Old Norse word meaning angry, & a Dutch word meaning rough, harsh & cruel. All these came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning to twist or bend. It wasn’t until the 1560s that wreath meant a garland of flowers or greenery.
The Proto-Germanic word for basil or mistletoe (as if basil is anything like mistletoe) made its way into Old English, where it was combined with a word meaning twig to become our modern word mistletoe. Druids were big fans of hanging mistletoe in celebration of their winter rites, & as Christianity spread, the practice continued. We typically don’t discuss the Druids’ activities under the mistletoe, but the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have established itself sometime in the 1800s.
The word menorah entered the English language in 1886. It came from a Hebrew verb meaning to give light, to shine. Menorah shares a Semitic root with minaret, which appeared in English in the 1680s from Arabic through Turkish & French.
And two yule-related words we don’t typically associate with eating came from words referring to either the act of eating or the food itself. Creche made its way into English in 1892 from Old High German through Old French. In Old French, creche meant a crib, manger, or stall, but creche’s source word (the Old High German one) referred to the fodder the critters ate while in a crib, stall or manger — their food. Speaking of manger, in the 1300s the French word mangier, meaning to eat, gave birth to the English word manger in much the same way. Once more, critters in a manger eat.
And though most of us would rather not think about it, when truly little critters of the mite variety munch away on the larger critters in the manger, we employ another word based on the French verb to eat — mange!
May your holiday festivities be grand. Please leave any comments int he comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
This year, folks will celebrate Chanukkah December 22 to December 30, so in preparation, let’s take an etymological glance at Chanukkah & a few Chanukkah-related words that have made their way into English.
I’ll start by noting that the spellings I’ve chosen for this post are those favored by Balashon– the Hebrew Language Detective. Do others prefer other spellings? Yes. Any time English steals from elsewhere (which is most of the time), spellings get funky. There you go.
Not surprisingly, Chanukkah, means consecration. It entered English at the late date of 1891 (linguistic anti Semitism at work, perchance?). Interestingly, Chanukkah was the proper name of Cain’s oldest son, the father of Methusaleh.
Menorah entered English about the same time (1886), meaning candlestick, from a Semitic term meaning to shine or give light. This word came from the Arabic word manarah or manarat, meaning fire. The word minaret comes from the same root, which means there’s hardly an etymological degree of separation between minarets all over the world, from which Muslims are called to prayer, & the countless menorahs lit for Chanukkah.
Dreidel comes to English through Yiddish, & came to Yiddish through German. Dreidel's German root drehen means to spin. Its relatives include throw, torque, twist, & torment. This may shed new light on the idiom “she’s got her knickers in a twist,” though I’m not sure exactly what we can learn from that.
For as long as I remember I’ve had a fondness for the term Mazel tov. It came into English in 1826 from the Modern Hebrew term mazzel tob, which means good luck. This came from another Hebrew word mazzaloth, which refers to constellations, a connection to the understanding that one’s luck might be in the stars.
So, this Chanukkah, may menorahs burn brightly, dreidels spin nimbly, minarets do their good work, & may nobody’s knickers get in a twist over any of it.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Etymonline. & Balashon –Hebrew Language Detective
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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