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.
The word(s) Christmas showed up in Old English in 1123 as Cristes mæsse. It’s no surprise that the first bit heralds from the word Christ, while the second comes from the celebration of mass. More intriguing to me are the arrival dates of the following:
Father Christmas, late 1400s
Christmas box, 1611
Christmas tree 1835
Christmas card 1843
Xmas, which I’ve always assumed is a tacky invention of modern Americans, actually showed up in 1551 in England, the X coming from the first letter of Christos in Greek. Before that, examples of Xrmas (beginning with the first two letters of Christos in Greek) occurred as early as 1100. It turns out we tacky Americans don’t hold responsibility for this one. That 1551 citing comes from the arguably erudite E. Lodge, British historian.
And who knew that yule & jolly are kissing cousins? Both appear to come from a pre-Christian winter feast known in Old Norse as jol. Jolly showed up in English in 1300 after jol made its way through French, becoming jolif, meaning festive, pretty, merry, or amorous, whereas yule (also born of jol) made its way through the Old English word geola, which meant Christmas day or Christmastide. Here’s hoping those amorous Old Norsefolk who gave us these words experienced many a jolly jol in doing so.
Please leave a comment, & whether you celebrate Christmas or some other wintry holiday with friends, with family, or all by your lonesome, may your Christmas mass, your time around the Yule log, or your general jolliness be downright glorious.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Collins Dictionary, Ginger Williams (image) & Etymonline.
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.