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The Language of Christmas – tracing the roots of our festive vocabulary

The English language is a rich tapestry of languages pushed together, skewed, and flipped upside down as a result of a rather bloody and often shameful history of conquest, war, invasions and empires. It comes therefore as no surprise that the language we all speak contains a huge amount of words, phrases and influence from our neighbors and other countries whom we have influenced and been influenced by at some point or another. Some languages, such as French, have flourished and there now exist directly traceable links between thousands of English words and their French counterparts. On the other hand, vocabulary from other languages, such as old Gaelic, have withered and can now only be found in certain areas of our vocabulary usage.

With such a vibrant history of language development and one clearly littered with the pinching of words from other countries, we thought it would be interesting to look into some of our festive words, and dig a little into their etymology! Check out our top 3 words below:

Yuletide; the season of merriment, an archaic term for Christmas

Okay, so Yuletide is as English as English ever gets in the sense that we still stole it, but we did it a very long time ago! It’s been with us since the Old English period, stemming from the word ‘ġeōla’, meaning a ‘festive time’. To go even further back, we leave the British Isles and find the word Old Norse word ‘jól’, which describes ‘a midwinter festival’. By this point the association of Jesus with this festival is stripped away and this ‘mid-winter festival’ is likely to have been more of a pagan festival which celebrated the returning of the sun, following the longest night of the year, which coincidentally sits around Christmas time (this year it’s 3 days before Christmas). The oldest reference to ‘jól’ that we have comes from ‘Haraldskvæði’, a 9th century poem written about the battle of Hafrsfjorð. The poet declares the king’s intention to drink ‘jól’ as a form of celebration following the victory of the battle. Unsurprisingly therefore, the English word ‘yuletide’ can be traced back to drinking booze and getting merry. How unsurprisingly British of us to choose the booziest word we could find!

Carol; a happy or religious song, usually one sung at Christmas

The word for the happy and joyous singers that adorn our doorways once a year and have us reaching down the back of the sofa for a lost quid has an interesting history, and one with a very different historical root than our previous word.

Carol comes from French, and was likely brought over during the Normal Conquest in 1066. The word derives from the fairly obvious Old French ‘carole’, which was a circular dance accompanies by singing. Then things get interesting. The French word is derived from the Old Italian word ‘carola’, which describes someone with a ‘tonsure’ in their head, a circular crown of shaved skin at the top of the head. This was traditionally a sign of someone who is holy in many cultures and religions, and potentially it is the shape of the tonsure and the religious element associated with it which relates back to the circular formation of the dance. The etymology of this word, however, could trace further back to the Ancient Greek word χοραύλης, which means someone who plays the flute and accompanies a chorus dance. No alcohol references this time, but we like the idea that people have always been happy to get on their feet and shake their stuff!

Elf; a creature like a small person with pointed ears, who has magic powers

Finally, we come to the fabled little helpers with a myriad of cultural significance at Christmas and throughout the year in every culture across Europe. The history of this one is a little scattered, and linguists can’t seem to make up their mind on this one. Some believe that ‘elf’, ‘álf’ and other similar words all relate to the Proto-Indo-European root ‘albh’ which means ‘white’. The significance of this is that elves were often described in a similar way to fairies, mystical creatures surrounded by a white shimmer. However, the OED has a different root for the word, noting the etymology stems from Old High German, making its way into Middle High German, then over to West Saxon, before finally taking place in English. The Old High German origin could relate to the word ‘alp’, which describes a creature of ‘nightmares’. With stories such as the Grimm Brothers forever haunting our memories, we can always trust that the historical root of our now considerably tame Christmas stories to have a dark and terrifying origin – and we love the Germans for it!

A tapestry of culture and richness

So there we have it. Our language has borrowed from across the containment and the wider world for thousands of years. We may have jokingly referred to it in this article as stealing, and the assumption here is that this is wrong. We mean precisely the opposite, as stealing is what language almost universally is – pinching, adapting and modifying. As cultures merge and collide throughout the ages, we have always found a way to communicate with one another, and we’ve certainly never missed the opportunity to share our ability to drink, our love of dance and the stories we tell to one another. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Merry Christmas from everyone at Lingua-World!

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