The name Christmas itself probably needs little etymological explanation – it is, as it would appear, a contraction of Christ and mass. In Old English, Christmas was originally two words: Cristes mæsse, but it has been written as one since at least the fourteenth century. However, since explaining that a holiday commemorating the birth of Christ is, in fact, named after him would probably not make for the most interesting article, let us explore some other Christmas vocabulary.
Bauble is for me an intriguing word; one only ever used this one month of the year. Its etymology is both simple and beautiful coming (rather indirectly) from the Latin bellus meaning pretty. Overtime the word was abbreviated to bel (the same stem of belle in Modern French) and reduplicated into belbel. By the fourteenth century this was corrupted in Old French to baubel and swiftly adopted into English and used to refer to a children’s toy or trinket.
Indeed, it is children’s toys (or presents) that most of us first think of when met with the word Christmas. Present came into Old English from the French mettre en present (to place before) which in turn evolved from the Latin presentia. In all likelihood, this originally referred only to the gifts offered to Jesus after his birth, but later became far wider in scope.
Also from French is the word we use to refer the story of Jesus’ birth: nativity. This stems from the Old French nativité meaning birth, origin, descent or birthday. It is unclear when nativity transitioned from common usage to a purely religious one, but the Old English nativiteð referred to the birth of any individual, not just Christ.
Today the story of the nativity is most commonly recited through song (or that most detested beloved tradition of the primary school play). Carol has referred to joyous song in English since the thirteenth century yet originally meant to dance in a ring as in the Old French verb caroler. This perhaps itself evolved from the Latin choraules and Greek khoraules, meaning flute player, as the flute was the traditional instrument of celebratory dance in ancient cultures.
Apart from all this, food is surely one of the favourite aspects of Christmas for many, and yule logs remain a treasured treat. Yule is the word for Christmas in many modern Germanic languages. It is jul in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, jól in Icelandic and Faroese, joulu in Finnish, jõulud in Estonian, juulli in Greenlandic, and yule in Scots (not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic). These cognates may help you to guess its origin. It is rooted in the Old Norse word jol, which became geol in Old English. Although it was originally used to describe a pagan festival which took place around the same time, Northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity saw it become the word for Christmas in every Nordic country, and it was only replaced by Christmas in English in the eleventh century. Interestingly, jol was also adopted into Old French as jolif, implying that the Modern French word joli meaning pretty originally meant festive and jolly.
Merry, the word attached to Christmas in British English to describe its festivity and jolliness stems from Middle English mirie which described pleasant, sweet and enjoyable feelings. This is turn descends from the Proto-Germanic murgijaz which meant short-lived. While it may be depressing to think that a word encapsulating joy and gladness essentially comes from one which describes the ephemeral, let us remember that Christmas has been celebrated for two thousand years now and remains so far into the 23rd century with the Klingon expression for Season’s Greetings being toDwI'ma' qoS yItIvqu' (Our Saviours birthday you-enjoy)
By Linguistics Editor, Michael Hendle.