poinsettia

This flower (Euphorbia pulcherrima), native to Mexico and associated with Christmas, has a rather straightforward etymology. It is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the U. S. minister (i. e., ambassador) to Mexico from 1825–30. An amateur botanist, Poinsett sent samples of the flower back to the States, and the name poinsettia became attached to the plant by 1836. The original Latin designation was Poinsettia pulcherrima, but by the 1860s it was recognized as being in the genus Euphorbia.

The association with Christmas began in Mexico. In Mexican Spanish the poinsettia is called flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve flower).


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, September 2006, s. v. poinsettia, n.

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Boxing Day

Boxing Day is 26 December, the day after Christmas. It is celebrated in Britain and many of the Commonwealth countries, including Canada, but not in the United States. Two competing theories about the origin of the term are common. One is that the name comes from the Christmas box traditionally given to tradespeople on that day. The other is that it comes from the boxes of alms collected by churches in connection with St. Stephen’s Day, which in the Western church calendar falls on the day after Christmas. 

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reindeer

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, are a species of deer native to the arctic and subarctic of Europe, Siberia, and North America. The word is a borrowing from the Scandinavian languages—it’s hreindýri in Old Icelandic and rendjur in Swedish. (The usual word in Swedish is simply ren, but rendjur is an older form.) The first element of reindeer is from the Germanic root rein, which is of uncertain origin, but is likely a reference to the creature’s antlers. Deer is a Germanic root meaning animal or beast, which only later specialized to mean the species of ruminant mammals. So the literal meaning of reindeer is likely “horned beast.”

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English Composition 101

This isn’t strictly on the topic of word and phrase origins, but it’s a topic I have recently gained considerable experience in. John Warner has penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc...) Papers,” and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more.

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carol

Why do we call them Christmas carols? The word carol was introduced into English by the Normans and comes from the Old French carole. It shares a root with words like chorus and choir. But in what may be probably surprising to most, the first English carols were not just songs; they were also dances. After all, in ancient Greek drama, the chorus both sang and danced, and Terpsichore was the muse of dancing.

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egg-nog

There will be no ultimate answer to the origin of egg-nog. The egg is easy enough—the drink is made with eggs, but the nog is a stumper that produces a lot of speculative possibilities but no conclusive evidence.

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yule

Yule comes from the Old English geola a name for the months of December or January. The English word is cognate with, but apparently not descended from, the Old Norse jól, a pagan solstice celebration.

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Santa Claus

The name Santa Claus is a variation on the Dutch Sint Klaas. The Sint, or Sante in the Dutch dialect of early New York, obviously corresponds to the English Saint, and the Klaas is somewhat less obviously a hypocoristic form of Nicholas. While in English we typically abbreviate the name as Nick, in Dutch and German it is the final element that is used, resulting in Klaas or Klaus. So Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas. 

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wassail

Wassail and wassailing are associated with Yuletide revels and overindulgence, although many people are a bit fuzzy on what the words mean. That’s somewhat understandable as the words have a variety of meanings. Wassail started out as a simple greeting, became a drinking toast, then became the drink and revelry itself, as well as songs associated with drinking, then carols and songs sung by people begging for drinks on Twelfth Night, and finally Christmas carols themselves.

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Christmas, Xmas

Christmas has a rather straightforward and obvious etymology. It is Christ’s mass, the religious service and festival associated with Jesus’ birthday. The word dates to the late Old English period. The Old English cristesmæsse isn’t found in any extant text written prior to c. 1000, but it’s likely to be older and those older uses simply don’t survive.

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