CHRISTMAS, ON THE CARDS

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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

 

The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.

 

 

Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.

 

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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)

 

 

The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…

 

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YULETIDE EMBLEMS

Christmas is almost upon us, with its more-than-familiar seasonal decorations and traditions. Here are some brief etymologies…

 

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Mistletoe (Viscum album: Latin for ‘sticky white’) is from Old English mistel (mistletoe, birdlime – in modern German Mist means dung or ‘crap) and Old English tan (twig): the ‘toe’ component came about in the Middle English period, probably as a result of scholars misreading the –an of tan as a plural ending.

Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder reported that the Druid shamans encountered in 1st century AD Britain revered the parasitic plant. They used it in sacrificial rituals and ‘believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons’. Later Norse mythology describes the beloved god Baldur being killed by a shaft of mistletoe, the only living thing that had, because of its innocent insignificance, not been sworn to protect him.

The bird known in English as the mistle thrush doesn’t kiss under but snacks upon mistletoe berries. Its Latin name is turdus (thrush) viscivorus from the noun viscum (mistletoe) and the verb devorare (to devour).

 

 

Holly is from Middle English ‘holi’, from Old English hole(g)n, itself from Proto-Germanic *hulin from a posited Proto-IndoEuropean root *kel- meaning prick or cut. We can compare modern Cornish kelynn, Welsh celyn. Holly was once thought to be immune to lightning strikes and legend held that its berries had been white until the blood of Christ dyed them. The plant’s vigour in winter, when most other vegetation had withered or died, led pagans and Christians alike to take it as a sacred token, blending notions of immortality with the suffering symbolised by its prickly leaves. As late as the 1950s there were many different local versions of its name…

 

 

Holly’s fellow evergreen, Ivy, is from Middle English ‘ivi’, Old English īfiġ, from Proto-Germanic *ibahs, originating in Proto-IndoEuropean *(h₁)ebʰ-, a word used for several different plants with pointed leaves. Ivy was in mediaeval times believed to be female, and then and later was also thought to ward off the effects of alcohol (tavern drinks were sometimes served in cups made of its wood) and to protect against evil when used as a wreath or garland.

One of the best-known Christmas carols, first published in 1710 but certainly older, memorably unites the two plants…

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir 
 

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Carol was adopted from the Old French carole, from Old Italian carola, Latin choraula, a borrowing of Greek χοραυλής (khoraulḗs),  the word designating a flute player accompanying a chorus, from χορός (khorós), choir, dance. In French the verb caroler was used in the 14th century of dancing in a circle, while the English noun had come to mean a Christmas ‘hymn of joy’ by 1500.

Nativity – piety and puns

 

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Christmas Eve in the Anglosphere is a curious concatenation of Christian iconography, pagan indulgence and excess (including in some cases the illicit practices described in my last post) and quaint folk custom. The tradition of the excruciating pun, still to be found inside the Christmas cracker, but now a staple, too, of waggish posts on social media, puts language centre-stage. A quite different shared language is the repertoire of terms used to tell the Christmas story itself: ancient, resonant words originating in the gospels and coming down to us by way of re-translation and reinterpretation, but so familiar as to pass unexamined.

This year I took a look at both varieties of Christmas language in this article for The Conversation

https://theconversation.com/uncovering-the-language-of-the-first-christmas-70686

 

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…and more on those awful cracker jokes here:

https://theconversation.com/the-victorians-gave-us-the-christmas-cracker-but-are-also-to-blame-for-the-terrible-jokes-inside-70745?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Echobox#link_time=1482486752

 

…and here are thoughts from a believer on the name(s) of Jesus:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2016/12/the-name-of-jesus-3/

 

A WHITE CHRISTMAS?

GAK – A CASE IN POINT

 

 

One of the showbiz gossip-sheet Popbitch’s favourite words of the last decade, the online crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary’s earliest citations of it are from 2003, defining it in one instance as cocaine, in another as amphetamine or methamphetamine. The short sharp single-syllable in question is gak.

It interests me because it seems to be without precedent, ‘of uncertain etymology’ as the dictionary compilers have it. The same word is, in their jargon, ‘polysemous’, and can mean quite different things: paraphernalia, ‘stuff’ used on-set in the jargon of movie crews; something nauseating, or an exclamation of disgust in high-school slang, and semen or ejaculation in the argot of pornographers and sexploitation professionals. Like gank it can also mean to steal, rob or plagiarise in the US street argot and cyberslang of the noughties.

From comments supplied by those ‘donating’ the word to Urban Dictionary or other online lexicons the drug it most often denotes seems to vary according to region: methamphetamine in Nevada, cocaine only in London (just this week replaced by Antwerp as Europe’s number one consumer according to analysis of the water) and marihuana in Sydney, Australia. On an online forum in 2002 a UK-based contributor asserts that ‘gak is cocaine’, noting the trending expression gak attack to describe sniffing the drug from a partner’s naked body or blowing it up their nose.

When I first encountered the word I guessed that it had something to do with the involuntary constriction of the throat that the sound of it replicates, a connection which would fit with more than one of its referents, but I had no evidence to support this. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a citation from 1997 with the spelling gack, and hazards that it may derive from a British dialect word for chatter, which I think is doubtful. In my own 2014 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang I glossed it then as ‘probably the most widespread nickname for the drug in use from the mid-noughties’, though it now has rivals in chang, ching and chop, opining that it ‘may be an imitation of a gagging reflex or sudden swallowing and/or snorting as a dramatic reaction to ingestion.’

The word highlights an interesting challenge that the lexicographer, of slang in particular, has to grapple with; the fact that in the communities where such terms are coined and traded there are no real authorities. There are anonymous individuals fluent in the colourful nonstandard vocabulary, ‘expert users’ in linguistic jargon, but these are not ‘language experts’ who can compare and contrast and draw on knowledge of earlier examples. Even when the real-world informants that fieldworkers rely on offer up a convincing etymology, as they often do, accompanied by plausible anecdotal supporting evidence of who said it first, in which locations the expression is widely used, etc. these confident assertions are as likely as not to be mistaken, if not invented for the occasion. The dates attached to reports of slang may not mean much either: most slang originates in speech and slang usages can be exchanged for years in an underground milieu before they come to the notice of commentators. Dictionary citations nearly always record only the first printed examples.

Consumers of illicit drugs inevitably coin their own nicknames for the substances they ‘abuse’. They aren’t going to use the ‘official’ technical names for the chemical compounds in question (unless reworked as in Ket, K or Special K for Ketamine) and ownership of an exotic and mysterious alternative marks out the user (of the words and the drug) as an insider, a member of an exclusive, transgressive community. When a drug is a crucial part of a shared sense of identity its users will come up with more than one name for it, eventually developing a whole range of colourful references, a phenomenon known as ‘hypersynonymy’ (drinkers, university students for example, also do this, using scores of more interesting ways of saying ‘drunk’). Whether they see themselves as glamorous or fun-loving or abject and pitiful, cocaine enthusiasts can in the midst of euphoria display a hint of levity, as my own favourite terms beak and bugle (both older British slang synonyms for nose) and, evoking the singleminded satisfying of animal appetite, nosebag, testify.

 

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In June 2019 Tory leadership contender Michael Gove admitted to having used cocaine, prompting facetious and irreverent comments on social media, many of which referred to the drug by the slang designations mentioned above, as well as flake, sparkle, blow and yayo. Perhaps the most memorable remark came from MonkeyDog on Twitter: ‘I’m more surprised when people haven’t tried cocaine. I mean how have you avoided it? Even popping to the pub there’s more beak than at an owl sanctuary.’

This helpful 2016 guide to drug nicknames from VICE magazine includes our key word, and provides comments on users and usage:

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-your-choice-of-drugs-slang-says-about-you?utm_source=vicetwitteruk

…and Gak’s popularity is highlighted in this Londoner’s blog from 2013:

https://confessionsofashallowman.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/coke-city-how-gak-is-taking-over-east-london/

High society magazine Tatler investigated fashionable drug use and its terminology in 2013:

http://www.tatler.com/news/articles/june-2013/the-drugs-report-part-one

http://www.tatler.com/news/articles/june-2013/the-drugs-report-part-two

…and UK drug advisory agency FRANK published this A- Z of drug slang:

http://www.talktofrank.com/drugs-a-z