A partridge in a pear tree? I’d rather have a blog on etymology

I blimmin’ love Christmas. I put my decorations up on 1 December every year without fail, then I get really depressed on Boxing Day because it’s ALL OVER. So, before that happens, here’s my Christmas gift to you – six Christmassy words and their etymology (I was going to do 12 – as in the 12 days of Christmas – but it was too many and I ran out of steam. Sorry).

1. Eggnog

Yum, eggy booze. Who on earth thought that sounded nice? Maybe that’s why we only drink it once a year. Anyway, the ‘nog’ bit of ‘eggnog’ is a 17th-century word for strong beer (looks like the English have always been lager louts) from Norfolk. And the ‘egg’ bit? Well, you can probably work that out for yourself. 

2. Carol

Nothing to do with Vorderman or King, we used to use the word ‘carol’ to talk about any celebratory song. It was the Tudors who started using it for Christmas songs only. We nicked the word ‘carol’ from our Gallic friends across the channel in the Middle Ages – a carole was French for a circle dance accompanied by singers. And they probably got it from the Italians (carola), who took it from the Latin (choraulēs – ‘flute player accompanying a chorus dance’), which came from the Ancient Greek word khoraulḗs (‘one who accompanies a chorus on the flute’). That has its roots in Proto-Indo-European language, but as you probably stopped reading a while ago, I won’t go into that.

3. Mistletoe

This one’s a bit of a mystery (a mistle-tery? Nope?). Well, ‘mistle’ is – the ‘toe’ bit’s fairly straightforward, as it comes from ‘tān’, which is an Old English word for ‘twig’. But no one’s really sure where the ‘mistle’ part came from. Wikipedia just says it’s ‘from Proto-Germanic *mihstilaz (“mistle”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₃meyǵʰ- (“to urinate”)’ which I feel merits more explanation, but sadly, doesn’t give any.

Mistletoe’s a parasitic plant, which means it sucks the nutrients out of other plants, either stunting their growth or killing them (which is why it stays green all year round, the bastard). And some of it’s poisonous. Kissing under the deadly parasitic twig doesn’t seem quite so romantic now, does it?

4. Poinsettia

The poinsettia is a Mexican plant which the ancient Aztecs called ‘cuetlaxochitl’. Presumably because no-one could pronounce that, when American ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett bought one back with him from Mexico to the US of A they decided to name it after him. The association with Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend (which I was in a production of at primary school). You can read it here (the myth, not my primary school production).

5. Tinsel

Beloved of 80s Christmas trees, ‘tinsel’ was originally the name for a cloth that was woven with gold or silver thread. It comes from the Middle French word estincelle which means ‘spark’ or ‘spangle’.

Tinsel was invented in Nuremberg in the 17th century. Originally made from real silver, apparently it’s supposed to mimic the appearance of ice. I never knew that, even though now I do it seems blindingly obvious.

I like saying the word ‘tinsel’.

6. Yule

Log lady.jpg

Like a lot of stuff to do with Christianity, this one was stolen from paganism (technically called ‘Christanised reformulation’ fact fans). It comes from the word jól, the Norse name of a pagan festival which took place in the 12 days leading up to 25 December. It’s connected with the myth of the wild hunt (which is a pretty frickin’ awesome myth). We nicked the word jól and added it to Old English as ġéol, which morphed into ‘yule’ some time in the middle of the 1400s. I’m not really entirely sure what we use it for these days, except for making bad puns (‘yule love this festive blog post!’) and the yule log. I totally thought a yule log was a cake, but it’s an actual log which also has pagan roots (BOOM BOOM).


So, there you have it. A little bit of Christmas cheer, in blog form. Oh, and thanks for reading my word-based musings this year – here’s to plenty more in 2018.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.