Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

December 2009

We owe you an Etymology

So, here it is: Merry Christmas. Everybody's having fun. Especially etymologists. Many of the words omnipresent at this time of year have intriguing histories. Some of these are widely known. For example, it wouldn't take much sleuthing to work out the origins of the word Christmas (it's from the Old English Crīstes mæsse, i.e. the Mass of Christ). Similarly, it's no seasonal secret that Santa Claus is a contraction of 'Saint Nicholas', as Mr Claus is commonly identified with the aforementioned Saint (the legendary patron of children, who brings presents on Christmas Eve or, in some European countries, on Saint Nicholas' Day).

But what about the origins of the word Yule, for example? This comes from another Old English word geōla, which was originally the name of a pagan feast that lasted 12 days (Ring any bells? Or put a partridge in your pear tree?). It has equivalents in the Old Norse jōl, the Swedish jul, and the Gothic jiuleis. And how about the ever-popular festive accessories holly, ivy, and mistletoe? Holly has its roots in the Old English holegn, which is related to the Old Norse hulfr, the Old High German hulis, and the Old Slavonic kolja (meaning 'prick'). Ivy comes from the Old English īfig, is related to Old High German ebah, and possibly to the Greek iphuon (meaning 'a plant'). And mistletoe stems from the Old English misteltān (comprised from mistel, the Old English word for this plant, and tān, meaning 'twig').

The traditional Christmas dinner and its trimmings also have their own rich history. Turkey is a shortened form of turkey cock, which was used at first to designate the African guinea fowl (apparently because the bird was brought through Turkish territory), and was later mistakenly applied to the North American bird. Pudding has its base in not only the Low German puddek (meaning 'sausage') but also the unappetizing Old English puduc (meaning 'a wart'). Sprouts come from the Old English sprūtan, which is related to the Middle High German sprūzen (meaning 'to sprout') and the Lettish sprausties (meaning 'to jostle'). And the nog part of egg-nog is from an East Anglian dialect word meaning 'a strong beer'.

As for the tradition of giving gifts, this is popularly believed to hearken back to the gifts from the Nativity of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In case you were wondering, frankincense is an aromatic gum resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, which grow in Asia and Africa. It gets its name from the Old French franc (meaning 'free' or 'pure') and encens (meaning 'incense'). And, for the avoidance of doubt, myrrh is also an aromatic resin, obtained from any of several trees and shrubs of the African and S Asian genus Commiphora, especially C. myrrha. It is used in perfume, incense, and medicine, and its baffling-to-some name is from the Old English myrre, via Latin from the Greek murrha, with its ultimate origins in the Akkadian murrū (which bears comparison with the Hebrew mōr, and the Arabic murr). Gold does not need quite so much of an introduction, but the word itself is from the Old English gold, related to the Old Norse gull, and the Gothic gulth.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Collins!

Duncan Black - Editor