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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Xmas, Christmas

See Christmas, Xmas

fascism, fascist

The term for a right-wing political ideologue arises in post-World War One Italy, but its etymological roots go back to the Roman Empire. Fascis (pl. fasces) is Latin for a bundle of rods, especially one bound with an axe, and carried before a Roman magistrate as a symbol of power and authority. English use of the word dates to the late sixteenth century, and the use of the image of fasces has a long history—bronze reliefs of fasces appear on either side of the speaker’s rostrum in the U. S. House of Representatives, for instance. 

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Why I dislike Bryan Garner

I don’t dislike the man. I’ve never met him. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, and given a chance, we’d probably get along just fine. But I don’t like Garner’s Modern American Usage, an Orwellian usage guide published by Oxford University Press.

Why don’t I like it? It’s not simply because it’s “prescriptivist.” I have no problem with giving advice on how to write well. As a teacher of composition, I tell my students how to write all the time, and hopefully I’m teaching them to write well. And it’s not because consistently following Garner’s advice will result in stodgy, unimaginative prose. There is a place for stodgy, unimaginative prose. For example, I tell my students that Garner’s is a good guide if you’re composing a cover letter for a résumé, where you want language that no one could possibly object to. What I object to is Garner’s attitude toward language and the methodology—if you can dignify his arbitrary and subjective process with that label—he uses to formulate his pronouncements.

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leech

Leech is a noun with two distinct meanings, or perhaps it is more accurately stated that leech is two separate nouns that are spelled the same and often conflated. The word is the name for a type of blood-sucking invertebrate, and it also is an archaic term for a physician or healer. The two senses are associated because physicians used to (and in some limited applications still do) use the worms to draw blood out of a patient. The conflation of the two goes back to Old English, where læce is the word for both a physician and a bloodsucker, but the two senses apparently come from distinct roots.

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graduand

I learned a new word yesterday, graduand: a candidate for graduation at a school or university; someone who has completed the requirements of a degree, but hasn’t received their diploma yet.

The oldest citation in the OED is from the 1882 Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, so the word is bound to be somewhat older than that. The word comes to English from the medieval Latin graduandus, which is the gerundive of the verb graduare, to graduate.

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