Word of the Month: Christmas
December is a month of holidays that have spawned any number of words and phrases that, while familiar, do not have obvious etymologies. Many are based on traditions that are quite old and the words survive only in their holiday incarnations. So, our word of the month for this December is Christmas, n., the festival, or mass, of Christ’s nativity, celebrated on 25 December, from the Old English Cristes mæsse, before 1123.
A list of words associated with Christmas and other December holidays follows:
advent, n., the period leading up to Christmas, esp. the four preceding Sundays, from the Old French, ultimately from the Latin adventus or arrival, c.1100.
angel, n., a spiritual being who serves as an attendant and messenger of God, c.1150, an Old English adoption from the Latin angelus, ultimately from the Greek angelos, messenger.
auld lang syne, c.phr., Scots dialectal phrase meaning days of long ago or old friendship (literally, old long since). The popular song of this name began life in 1721 and is by poet Allan Ramsay. The version that is most familiar today is a 1793 modification of the original by Robert Burns.
Boxing-day, n., the first weekday after Christmas, traditionally the day on which delivery persons and servants would receive a box of Christmas gifts, 1833.
carol, n. & v., a song in celebration of Christmas, 1502, from earlier sense of a joyful song, 1303, and a ring dance, before 1300. To sing such as song dates to before 1369 and to dance a ring dance from before 1300. From the Old French carole. The ultimate origin is uncertain, but it could either be from the Latin chorus or, if the origin is related to ring, carolla, meaning crown or garland.
Chanukah, n., Jewish festival celebrating the purification of the temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabaeus, beginning on the 25th of Kislev and lasting eight days (in November-December in the common calendar). From the Hebrew for consecration, in English use from 1891. Also spelled Hannukah.
Christ, n., title given to Jesus of Nazareth, from the Old English crist, ultimately from the Latin Christus and Greek christos, anointed, c.950.
crèche, n., a representation of the infant Jesus in the manger, used for display at Christmas, 1792, from the French for crib.
dreidel, n., a four-sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters used in children’s play during Chanukah, 1934, from the Yiddish dreydl, ultimately from the Middle High German draejen, to turn (mod. German drehen).
egg nog, n., a drink made with eggs, usually mixed with spirits, 1825, the nog is from the name of a strong East Anglian beer, of unknown origin, 1693.
elf, n., a supernatural being of Germanic folklore, in Christmas tradition elves assist Santa Claus, from the Old English aelf.
Epiphany, n., festival commemorating the manifestation of the infant Jesus to the Magi (the Gentiles), celebrated on 6 January, the twelfth day of Christmas, from the Old French epiphanie, ultimately from the Latin and Greek meaning to manifest, before 1310. Figurative use meaning a sudden appearance or revelation dates to before 1667.
Father Christmas, n., British name for the personification of Christmas as an old man with flowing, white beard who bears gifts, 1658.
Feast of Stephen, n., the festival of St. Stephen, celebrated on 26 December. In Britain the day was celebrated by servants killing a wren, in Celtic tradition this was usually considered unlucky, but not so on St. Stephen’s Day. The servants would carry the wren from house to house, requesting money or food. This eventually became the tradition of Boxing-day.
First Night, n., a non-alcoholic New Year’s Eve celebration featuring cultural events, the tradition began in Boston in 1976 and has spread to other cities.
frankincense, n., an aromatic gum resin from the tree genus Boswellia, used as incense, associated with Christmas as being one of the three gifts of the Magi, from Old French frank, meaning of superior quality, + incense, before 1387.
fruitcake, n., a cake containing fruit, traditionally eaten at Christmas, 1854.
gold, n., a yellow, precious metal, the chemical with the symbol Au, associated with Christmas as being one of the three gifts of the Magi, from the Old English from a common Germanic root.
holly, n., an evergreen shrub or tree with green, prickly leaves and red berries, commonly used as a Christmas decoration, from the Old English holen, c.1150.
humbug, n., a hoax, fraud, or sham, 1751, uttered by Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol in reference to the holiday.
Immanuel, n., title given to Jesus of Nazareth, from Hebrew via Greek and Latin, literally meaning God is with us, 15th century, often Emmanuel.
Kwanzaa, n., a festival observed by many African-Americans, celebrated 26 December to 1 January. From the Swahili kwanza, meaning first. The full name of the festival is matunda ya kwanza, or first fruits (of the harvest). 1966.
magi, n., plural of magus, a Persian priest or astronomer, applied to the wise men, traditionally depicted as three, from the East who brought gifts to the infant Jesus, from the Latin and Greek, ultimately from Old Persian, 1377. The names traditionally given them are 7th century, not Biblical. Balthasar is from the Babylonian Belu-sharu-usur, Bel protect the king. Gaspar is from the Persian Kansbar, treasurer. And Melchior is from the Hebrew meaning my king of light.
manger, n., an open box or trough out of which animals can eat fodder, from the Anglo-Norman mangure, ultimately from the Middle French mangeoire, to eat, in English use since before 1333.
menorah, n., an eight-branched candelabrum used during Chanukah celebrations, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple in Jerusalem, now a symbol of Judaism, 1886, from the Hebrew.
Messiah, n., the deliverer of the Jewish people and savior of humanity as promised in Hebrew scriptures, from the Old English, ultimately from Hebrew, before 1200; in extended use, with lower case, to mean any liberator of an oppressed people, 1667.
mistletoe, n., a yellowish-green, hemi-parasitic shrub with white berries, Viscum album, that grows on the branches of trees, used in England as a Christmas decoration. The root mistle—, which is another name for the plant, has cognates in many Germanic languages. The –toe is from the Old English tan, or twig. The word dates to the Old English era.
myrrh, n., an aromatic gum resin from the genus Commiphora, used in perfumes and incense, associated with Christmas as being one of the three gifts of the Magi, from Old English, ultimately from the Latin murra and eventually Greek.
nativity, n., the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, from the Latin for birth, before 1230, applied to a person’s birth in general, c.1350.
noel, interj. & n., orig. nowell, a male name, usually given to boys born on Christmas, 12th century; a word of joy shouted at Christmas, c.1395; the feast of Christmas, c.1400; a Christmas carol, 1786; from the Middle French, a variant on the Latin natal.
partridge, n., a type of game bird, in Europe applied to Perdix cinera, in North America to one of several birds in the grouse or pheasant families, from the Middle English pertrich or partrich, and from there the Old French pertriz or perdriz, ultimately from Greek, c.1290.
plum pudding, n., a bread pudding with plums, traditionally eaten at Christmas, 1711.
poinsettia, n., Mexican flower, Euphorbia pulcherrima, consisting of bright, red leaves surrounding greenish-yellow flowers, used as a Christmas decoration, after J.R. Poinsett (1779-1851), American ambassador to Mexico, 1836.
reindeer, n., a type of deer, Rangifer tarandus, often domesticated, once common in Central Europe, now confined to sub-arctic regions, from the Old Norse hreindryi, the word hreinn is another name for the animal + dry or deer, before 1400. The names of Santa’s reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen first appear in Clement Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas. (Moore’s poem used the name Donder, subsequent tradition has altered this to the modern German Donner, meaning thunder.) The name Rudolph originated in a story written by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May in 1939 as a promotion for customers. The song, based on the story, was written by Gene Autry in 1949.
Saint Nicholas, n., name for Santa Claus or Father Christmas, after the 4th century Bishop of Myra and saint, feast day on 6 December. The historical saint’s connection to gift giving is in an apocryphal tale of three sisters, too poor to afford dowries. As each reached marriageable age, Nicholas anonymously delivered money during the night so they could be married. Some versions of the tale have the father waiting up to see who the benefactor was, only to have Nicholas drop the money down the chimney.
Santa Claus, n., American name for the imaginary person who supposedly brings gifts to children on Christmas, Father Christmas, after the Dutch dialectical Sante Klaas, 1773.
Saturnalia, n., the festival of Saturn, celebrated by the Romans in the middle of December, the timing and some of its traditions became associated with the Christian holiday of Christmas. From the Latin.
Scrooge, n., a miser, a curmudgeon, after the character in Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, figurative use dates to 1940.
sleigh, n., a carriage with runners for transport over snow and ice, a sledge, from the Dutch slee, chiefly North American in usage, 1703.
solstice, n., one of two dates, usually June 21 and December 22, when the sun reaches the tropics (is furthest from the equator) and appears to stop in the heavens, the winter solstice was a common pagan holiday and is used today by some non-Christians as a substitute celebration for Christmas, c.1250, from the Latin solstitium, sol (sun) + sistere (to stand still).
stocking, n., a garment covering the feet, ankles, and lower leg, a sock, the stock- is related to the instrument of punishment and is a reference to the tight-fitting nature of the garment and its location at the ankle, 1583.
sugar-plum, n., another name for candy, a generic term representing no particular type of sweet, before 1668.
tinsel, n., a cloth interwoven with silver or gold thread and so made to sparkle, thin strips of silver or gold (or similar looking alloy) used as decoration at Christmas, from the Old French estincelle, meaning sparkle or flash, 1526.
turtle dove, n., a bird of the genus Turtur, also used in North America and in Australia to denote native birds on those continents, the turtle is an echoic reference to the cooing of the dove, before 1300.
Twelfth Day, n., Epiphany, the twelfth day after Christmas, c.1000, traditionally considered the close of the Christmas festivities.
Twelfth Night, n., the night before Epiphany, traditionally associated with merry making, c.900.
wassail, n. & v., a drinking toast, literally a wish for good health and prosperity, from the Middle English waes haeil and the Old English wes hal, c. 1205. By 1300 the meaning had transferred to the liquor drunk in the toast and the verb sense meaning to drink or carouse had developed. By 1598, the term came to mean the drinking done on Twelfth Night or New Year’s Eve, or a few years later to any drinking fest. A bit later, 1607, it had come to mean a drinking song.
wreath, n., a circlet, a fillet, something wound into a circular shape, from the Old English writha, c.1000. Wreathes of evergreens are traditional Christmas decorations.
Xmas, abbrev., Christmas, 1551. X (the Greek letter Chi) has been in use as an abbreviation for Christ since before 1100.
yule, n., the festivities associated with Christmas and New Year’s, Christmastide, from the Old English geol, orig. a pagan celebration transferred to the Christian holiday, c.900.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton