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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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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