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The language of Christmas
Dec 13, 2012
As Christmas approaches, we’re beset with words and expressions seldom heard at any other time. Let’s see where some of these came from.
Carol has an interesting history. It originated in Old French as carole, although scholars suggest it probably came from the Greek/Latin chorus/corolla.
Upon entering Middle English, it meant, “A ring dance with song.” Then it came to mean, “A song of joy.” By 1502, carol was understood as, “A hymn of joy, especially a Christmas song.”
Earlier in 1472, a carol was a ring of standing stones — like Stonehenge. By 1810, it also referred to an enclosure or study in a cloister. This sense remains today in the word carrel — a study nook found in a library.
Noel, in English since 1811, is defined as, “a word shouted or sung as an expression of joy at Christmas.” Originally spelled nowel, it’s from the Old French nouel. French lifted it from the Latin natalem (to sing).
Yule, spelled geol in Old English, came from the Teutonic jeul, but originated in the Old Norse jól where it referred to a pagan feast lasting 12 days and presided over by the god Odin. To celebrate this feast, the Yule log was brought indoors and lighted with a piece of last year’s log. Jól took place around December 21 at the time of the winter solstice and was primarily a salute to the return of light. By 1450, Yule referred in England to “Christmastide.”
Nativity is primarily used in connection with Christ’s birth, although it’s said to also refer to the conception of the Virgin Mary (December 8) and the birth of John the Baptist (June 24).
This word entered Early Middle English about 1500 as nativiteo from the French la nativité. Oxford says nativity also means a picture or other representation of Christ’s birth.
Magi is the plural of magus, a member of the Zoroastrian priestly cast of the Persians and Medes. A magus was skilled in sorcery, astrology and eastern magic. Since at least 1066, magi has referred to the three wise men who journeyed from the east to visit the infant Jesus.
Magus originated in Old Persian (magus) but entered English from the Latin, majica (sorcerer). Of course, magic, magician, magical, etc., claim the same beginning.
We’re told Jesus was born in a stable and cradled in a manger. A nativity scene is referred to as a crèche and the manger depicted seldom resembles a real manger. Nevertheless, the meaning of this French word is: “manger; crib; public day nursery” (Cassell’s New French Dictionary).
Crêche is a good example of a loanword adopted with no change from its original spelling. It’s been in English since 1882.
Christmas, itself, means, “The mass of Christ.” It’s from the Late Old English Cristes maesse.
Mass came into Old English as maesse from the Latin messa/mittere (to dismiss). It was used in Old English in the sense of “feast day” and is thought to have come from the words of dismissal at the end of a religious service — Ite missa est. Eventually, missa came to mean the service itself — the mass.