As regular readers of my blog know, words fascinate me. And with Christmas close at hand, I decided to look into Christmas seasonal words. I got more than I bargained for.
I’ll start with the name itself, Christmas. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word “Christmas” originated from the phrase Cristes Maesse, first recorded in 1038, which means the Mass of Christ or Christ’s Mass. So let’s look at the etymology of those two words. Christ comes from the Old English Crīst, from Latin Christus, from Greek Khristos, noun use of an adjective meaning “anointed,” from khriein “to anoint.” Mass, the Catholic worship ritual, is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin formula for the dismissal of the congregation: Ite, missa est, “Go, it is the dismissal.” Missa, ultimately from Latin mittere, means to send away.
Next: Yule. Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning Christmas. Yule (also called Jul, jól, or joulu) was originally a festival observed by the Germanic peoples. Scholars have connected the original celebrations of Yule to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht (“Mothers’ Night”).
Carol: The word means a song of praise or devotion. Its etymology, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is unchanged since 1300. It has always meant a joyful song, also a kind of dance in a ring, from Old French carole, a word of uncertain origin that means a round dance accompanied by singers.
Noel: It simply means Christmas or the feast of the Nativity. It comes from the French word Noël, Christmas. It has been in the language since the late fourteenth century and has a long and complex etymology. Alternate forms of the word in the past were nowel and nouel, meaning Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, deriving from the Old French noel, the Christmas season, a variant of nael, from Latin natalis (dies) “birth (day),” used in Church Latin in reference to the birthday of Christ, from natus, past participle of nasci, to be born (Old Latin gnasci), from the root gene- meaning to give birth, beget.
Wassail: an early English toast to someone’s health. It is most likely from Old Norse ves heill, a beverage made from hot mulled cider, ale, or wine and spices, drunk traditionally as an integral part of “wassailing,” an ancient English Yuletide drinking ritual and salutation either involved in door-to-door charity-giving or used to ensure a good harvest the following year.
More next time.
3 thoughts on “Christmas Words”
Skeat in his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language has a long paragraph on WASSAIL. It seems more likely that it derives from the Anglo-Saxon salutation wæs (þū) hēl meaninɡ ʼbe wholeʼ or ʼbe wellʼ What an interesting word. I’m enjoying your word stories. You can get a reprint of Skeat’s book which has been remaindered (From Edward R. Hamilton bookseller) It’s a wonderful book. You would love it.
Fascinating. Do you know Eric Partridge’s “Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English” (Greenwich House, 1983)?
I think I have a copy of it somewhere. Partridge is very good.