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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POOR GUY – a Fawkesian miscellany

Tonight is Bonfire Night, Firework Night, nowadays usurped by Hallowe’en as the most popular celebration of autumn-to-winter transition, but still a folk festival of note. Many people are aware that the fires and fireworks commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, but few know more than the name of the terrorist whose effigy we burn on Guy Fawkes night.

 

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The catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, who came from from Yorkshire, spoke French when captured and signed himself  ‘Guido’, using the Italian or Spanish form of the name (his autograph, before and after torture had been applied, is below). He may have begun the practice when fighting in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, although Italian names were considered fashionable and were sometimes adopted by English gallants. Guy is the French form of old Germanic Wido, either meaning ‘dweller at the forest margin’ or a nickname from ‘wide’ as bodily description or location (an open, flat region).

 

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The English surname Fawkes, also archaically spelled Fauks, Faukes and Fakes, derives from the German name or nickname Falco which probably originally referred to a person thought to resemble a falcon. Falco became Faulques in Norman French and was adopted after the Conquest, the first attestation coming from 1221.

 

While in London preparing to blow up parliament, Fawkes posed as a servant in the entourage of Thomas Percy, a fellow conspirator who had access to the parliamentary precincts. Fawkes’ less than imaginative choice of alias was ‘John Johnson.’

 

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Guy’s wide-brimmed headgear, crudely imitated on effigies and now caricatured as a ‘V for Vendetta’ hat, is correctly termed a ‘sugarloaf hat’, since its high, flat-topped crown resembled the sugarloafs imported from the colonies in the Stuart period.

 

Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island is actually two small uninhabited islands and two smaller rocks lying in the Pacific Ocean off the Galápagos Islands which are owned by Ecuador. The name might have been given after a fiery volcanic event had been witnessed, but was more probably bestowed by buccaneers who viewed Guy as a hero and one of their own.

 

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Fireworks did not just take off (pun intended) in England after the Gunpowder Plot. They first became popular in the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I loved them and appointed a ‘Firemaster of England’ to arrange displays.

 

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Bonfire (first recorded in 1483) is not, as Dr Johnson and others have claimed, French ‘bon feu’, (French would be ‘feu de joie’, ‘grand feu’) but ‘bone-fire’, a collection of burning bones or an open fireplace or outdoor pyre into which bones were thrown, after feasting for instance. By 1581 the word was also being used to refer to a fire in which heretics were burnt.

 

Guy himself was not executed by burning, a fate reserved for those found guilty of heresy.  He and the other condemned plotters were indeed Catholic dissidents, but the state wanted to avoid civil disturbances so accused them of treason, for which the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes managed to cheat the hangman by falling or throwing himself from the ladder leading to the scaffold, breaking his neck.

 

Guy Fawkes’s first name lived on, coming to mean by 1806 his effigy, then a grotesquely or poorly dressed person or eccentric. By extension a verb form arose (first attested in 1872) meaning to hold (someone) to ridicule. At the end of the 19th century in American colloquial usage the word had come to mean simply ‘a fellow’, from which we get our modern all-purpose, sometimes gender-neutral ‘guy’.

 

Illustration from 'Mischeefes mysterie London'

THE VAMPIRE AND ITS LINEAGE

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The history of the Vampire – the being and the word that names it – is fascinatingly convoluted. We know that the word came to us in the 18th century via German from Serbian vampir (вампир) but its ultimate origins and meaning are complex. Here, in fragments from a quite old – if not truly ancient –  publication are some thoughts on the enduring legend of the thirsty undead…

 

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In fact the figure of the bloodsucking or life-draining revenant is recurrent and attested in almost all prehistoric and most early modern cultures. There are examples from China (so-called ‘hungry ghosts’), Malaysia, the Americas, and, most interestingly from a linguistic point-of-view, the Kipchaks and Karachays of Caucasia and their relatives, the Tatars, and other Turkic-speaking peoples of Anatolia. Their languages give us yet another possible ancestor for the many names, culminating in today’s ‘vampire’, listed above. In modern Turkish obur denotes a glutton or greedy person, but in older folklore the Obur (Tatar Ubyr) was a bloodsucking night-demon that could shapeshift into a cat or dog or a beautiful woman. Here, then, is another possible – and rather plausible – antecedent for later slavonic upirs or vampirs.

 

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Vampire-like creatures were described, too, in classical writings, as Sententiae Antiquae relates here:

Ancient Greek Vampires 1: Empousa

 

The ‘old book’ extracts above are from my own 1999 title, Children of the Night:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-Night-HB-Vampires-Vampirism/dp/0575402725

AUTUMN FALLS TODAY

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,

 

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Today, the 23rd day of September (beginning, strictly speaking, at 2.54 am), is for us the Autumn or Autumnal Equinox. For our ancestors, speaking Old English, or ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ the time of emniht or efenniht ‘even-night’, occurs while Hāligmonath, the ‘holy month’ of September, so called because thanksgiving ceremonies for the grain harvest were held, is giving way way to Winterfylleth, the ‘winter full-moon’. In dark-age chronology the new month and the new season began with the first full moon of October. Around this time daylight and darkness are of roughly the same duration (Latin aequi, equal; nox, night), though only exactly at ‘Equilux’ (lux is light in Latin) which falls this year on September 28.

 

 

The christian church ignores the equinox, although Michaelmas, held on September 29th, may have been intended to wean pagans from their late-Summer and early-Autumn fertility rites. Modern Wiccans and new age pagans celebrate the feast of Mabon, or Second Harvest, at the Autumn equinox. Some prefer the Irish Gaelic name for this month, Mea’n Fo’mhair, which translates literally as ‘middle harvest’. Festivities may last for a week and involve the venerating and eating of fruits such as apples, blackberries, and nuts. Though derived from supposedly ancient Celtic myth, the acorn and chestnut-strewn altars, the overflowing horns-of-plenty and the russet-coloured robes on display are almost certainly modern inventions, never associated for sure with any historical or supernatural ‘Mabon.’

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There was indeed a god of youth in the Celtic pantheon whose name Maponos derived from mapos, a Gaulish word for son or boy, the root mab also denoting son in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Both come from Proto-Indo European makʷos, son, (which gives us the Mac and Mc used in Scottish and Irish surnames). The figure of Maponos was worshipped by Gallo-Romans on the continent and in Britain who identified him with the Roman god Apollo. Under the name of Mabon the same mythical youth appears in the Welsh Mabinogion legends and the Arthurian romances, but it is not known when in the year Maponos or Mabon were worshipped (there are two inscriptions on record from the end of August) or what rituals were involved.

Autumn, as is well attested, comes to us via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, itself from Latin autumnus which is said to be adapted from a lost Etruscan or Venetic root autu-, but could equally be formed from Italic au(ct)- meaning dry (the notion of drying leaves and grass, in John Clare’s words; The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread…the greensward all wracked...) or Latin auctus, increase (the opposing notion of late fruition and abundance, Blake’s laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape). As a seasonal name Autumn, first heard in England from the 12th century, was only rarely used here before the 16th century, ‘Harvest’ being the term preferred. ‘Fall’, probably a contraction of ‘fall-of-the-leaf’ was an alternative also used in former times in Britain and it was exported to America with settlers in the 17th century.

 

 

Above is Keats’ famous ode, with its first, endlessly quoted, line. But let a later author, Emily Dickinson, have the last word…

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze

 

OF THE EASTER EGG: ANECDOTES AND ETYMOLOGIES

Once a ‘heathen’ token of fertility and (re)birth (or so we are told – speculations by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century or Jacob Grimm in the 19th, now taken as gospel, may indeed be no more than speculation) appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of resurrection, nothing could be more familiar than an egg at Easter-time. More obscure are the early history of egg-giving and the very ancient origins of the word itself… 

 

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 Long ago it was a custom in northern England and Scotland to give decorated hardboiled eggs as presents for Easter, just as folk still do in Catholic and Orthodox Europe and elsewhere. These little gifts, typically hand-painted in vivid colours, were known variously as ‘paste-eggs’, ‘pace-eggs’ or ‘past-eggs’, the first component being a corruption of Latin paschalis, relating to Passover or Easter, rendered in earlier Englishes by the  adjectives ‘paschal’ or ‘pasch’. The terms might alternatively have been borrowed from just across the channel, perhaps from Dutch paasche eyren or Frisian peaske aaien. Dyeing or painting eggs, however, is a custom that predates ‘western’ or Christian practice. Very ancient traditions from many parts of the world involve the communal decoration of eggs at different times of the year, in Persia for example at the Nowruz (‘new day’) festival, marking the spring equinox and celebrated for the last two thousand years.

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Old Easter traditions, some true, some perhaps true and many almost certainly embellished (pun intended), were described by John Brand in his Popular Antiquity of 1841:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WJM9AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=brands+popular+antiquity+easter+eggs&source=bl&ots=ya4uX85_0D&sig=MSw3N9LT_uN5LoSNPcf8-8U4MzQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhnqigmYraAhVJ6xQKHedmACkQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=brands%20popular%20antiquity%20easter%20eggs&f=false

The first reference specifically to ‘Easter eggs’ is by John Knox in his 1572 History of the Reformation in Scotland. This tells of ‘gifts’ bestowed in a very different sense, when in Edinburgh a Catholic priest was captured and tormented: ‘Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him [i.e pelted him] with his Easter egges.’

We can perfectly understand the word Knox uses, but students of the history of the English language will be familiar with another anecdote, recounted by the printer William Caxton in his Eneydos (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneids) of 1490. He described a group of northern English merchants en route to Holland whose ship was becalmed on the Thames.  One of them went ashore to buy a meal from a local woman: ‘And specially he aksyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understood hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym well.’

 

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Northern English dialect had adopted the word egges from Old Norse, while southern and eastern dialects used Old English eyren. Both are descendants of the Proto-Germanic *ajją which itself comes from Proto-IndoEuropean*h₂ōwyóm. This may be formed from a root-word for bird,*awi-, so settling once and for all the question of which came first. It is of course also the ancestor of Latin ovum and its derivations in Italian (uovo), Spanish (huevo) and French (oeuf) as well as in Greek ōión, Old Church Slavonic aja, Russian jajco, Breton ui and Welsh wy. Our modern egg is cognate with modern Icelandic and Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg and Danish æg. Modern German ei is closer to the Old English version.

Amusingly, there have been folk etymologies (that is, fake etymologies) for egg put forward by mischievous or deluded ‘experts’ in the past. One silly claim is that our word is related to ‘ego’ – and that this is somehow a theory endorsed by Sigmund Freud. The dramatist John Lyly in his Galatea comedy of 1588 plays with the notion that eggs are enticingly golden in colour and are ‘tried in the fire’ just like gold, for which they could be a symbol or synonym. Like gold, too, they are incentives ‘to frolic’ as they ‘are a thing that doth egg on’.

That jaunty phrase to ‘egg someone on’ (first attested in1566) in the sense of urging someone to do something, especially something risky or offensive, in fact has a different history, deriving from the Middle English verb eggen, from Old Norse eggja (to incite). The base is again a noun, egg, but this time meaning the edge, of, for example a blade or a cliff, from Proto-Germanic *agjō, from Proto-IndoEuropean *h₂eḱ- (sharp, pointed), so the goading or provoking here involves pushing someone nearer or over a boundary (though some think it’s pushing with the figurative or literal edge of a sword). Lexicographers all insist that the expression ‘over-egg the pudding’ comes from this sense, supposedly referring to excessive mixing or beating, rather than – more logically – from the idea of adding too many eggs to the mixture and ruining its texture.

In the 18th and 19th centuries darning eggs (made of stone or wood and used to fill out a garment being mended) and egg-shaped trinket or needle boxes for adults became popular; the egg-shaped toy containers which were given to children at Easter were usually made of tin, sometimes of cardboard covered with velvet and satin, and filled with miniature gifts or sweets. The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th century and were solid, as the technology required for hollow shells was not yet in place. The first (dark) chocolate egg produced in the UK was sold by J.S Fry of Bristol in 1873: John Cadbury followed in 1875 and by 1905 was mass-producing hollow milk chocolate eggs, often filled with sugared almonds. In a reversal in 2017 The Solid Chocolate Company boasted – erroneously – that they had produced the world’s very first solid (Belgian) chocolate egg, weighing 750gm and retailing at £24.99.

 

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For more European translations of ‘egg’ and their etymologies:

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/5umohl/etymology_map_for_the_word_egg_in_european/

 

 

 

 

IN ONE BASKET – OF THE EGG, AT EASTER

 

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I have been, all too predictably, seasonally, thinking about the egg, its role in the imminent Easter festivities which will be the subject of the next post, but also reexamining the little word itself, so commonplace, so rarely considered.

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I’ll look at its etymology in the next post, too, but not surprisingly the egg has featured in English slang, at least since the first recorded attestations in the 16th century, but its various slang senses, until very recently, have been disappointingly obvious and unengaging.

The main senses and sub-senses of slang egg can be listed as follows, roughly in order of chronological record, and also in rough order of frequency of use (examples of these usages are listed by my fellow slang specialist and sometime collaborator, Jonathon Green, in his monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

1.

  • From its physical resemblance, (ovoid, containing viscous fluid, a seed of life): Testicle 
  • From its resemblance, (ovoid, hard surface, hollow, precious content): Head
  • From resemblance, (hollow container): Bomb
  • From resemblance, (hollow container or roughly oval pellet): Capsule, Tablet (of an illicit substance)

2.

  • By extension, from the notion of a unit, organism (heard in the obsolescent expressions in ‘posh’ British English ‘a good egg/bad egg’): Person
  • Specified, perhaps with reference to simple form (in New Zealand slang this is a common insult, though some claim it is inspired by d. below): Fool
  • Further specified, perhaps with added reference to fragility: Dupe
  • Clipped form of the colloquial expression denoting an individual with overdeveloped brain-function/intellectual prowess: Egghead

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So far, so unexciting. More recently, though, the same word has been adopted for new purposes, encoding fresh and interesting ideas. These, in no particular order, are:

  1. A transgender person who hasn’t yet embraced or revealed their identity. The usage plays on the notion of ‘a chick or a cock on the inside’. In August 2017 ‘happycookie’ posted the following on the Urban Dictionary website:

     ‘…If they’re unsure whether they want to transition they’re a scrambled egg. If they                    supposedly really dislike transgender people but still constantly talk about them                    they’re a hard-boiled egg’

          The term can also apply to someone who has newly acknowledged their identity,                or recently transgendered, by analogy with ‘newly hatched’.

 

  1. A white person who wishes to be or pretends to be ‘Asian’ (in the American sense of Japanese, Chinese, etc., formerly denoted by ‘oriental’). Urban Dictionary has a first and only mention from 2003, explaining that such a person is ‘white on the outside, yellow on the inside’. But there’s more here:

 

  1. An anonymous online troll, typically using the Twitter social network. In April 2017 Twitter stopped using the egg-shaped blank as its default avatar and substituted a gender-neutral silhouette, saying that it wished to ‘prompt more self-expression’ but more probably as the word egg had come to signify a malicious, anonymous user, typically male, who harassed other accounts, typically not anonymous and female. Twitter egg had also been used since 2010 as an insult directed at users who retained the egg default because they were too inept to create their own profile picture.

 

  1. In texting abbreviation and acronyms capitalised EGG has been used for ‘Enlightened Grammar Geek’, ‘Exceedingly Great Grooves’, and by gamers for ‘Elemental Gimmick Gear’

 

  1. An Easter egg in the jargon of computing, videogaming and video production is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or a secret feature, planted inside a computer program, video game, menu screen or electronic device, for instance, or only accessible by secret commands. The usage derives from having to search for hidden prizes on a traditional Easter egg hunt.

 

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  1. To egg (someone) as a verb is not really slang, but an informal term, originating in British usage, for flinging eggs at a victim, typically as a way of expressing contempt for a public figure. (I’ll deal with the phrase ‘to egg (someone) on’ in the next post.)

 

  1. The adjective eggy, sometimes eggsy, meaning nervous, agitated or moody, or peculiar, irritating or hostile, heard in US and British slang since the 1980s, is of uncertain origin. It may not be related to eggs, but be an adaptation of the colloquial ‘edgy’ or (putting someone) ‘on edge’.

 

  1. As adjective eggy can mean also excellent, of which it may be a playful distortion, in UK playground slang, since the 1990s.

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  1. In multiethnic British street slang eggs-up can mean intrusive, too curious or nosy. It probably comes from Jamaican ‘patois’ where it can also describe showing off or taking advantage of another person. The connection with actual eggs, if there is one, is unclear.

 

  1. While on the same subject, Jamaican English often pronounces the word as ‘hegg’, while in Irish slang a yoke is an unnamed object. There must be other senses of the e-word in popular conversation and online use, as yet unrecorded. If you know of any, please do send them to me (and you will be thanked and credited in any future writings).

 

 

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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.

STILL BEWITCHED

In my last post I looked at the names of a range of Hallowe’en creatures and investigated their origins. Let’s now consider, too, the practitioners of magic – whether supernatural or real –  impersonated in today’s festivities.

 

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The most familiar of these, the witch, derives its modern name, in use since the 16th century,  from the Old English wicce (the feminine form) or wicca (the masculine), first attested as long ago as 890 CE, or perhaps was coined later from the verb to bewitch, descending from Old English wiccian. Many commentators have proposed a prehistoric origin for the English terms, but have not managed to agree on what that origin might be. Middle Low German, the nearest neighbouring language to ours, had wicken and wicheln for bewitch, but there are no other contemporary cognates (provably related words) recorded elsewhere in mediaeval Europe.

 

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Attempts have been made to connect the Germanic witch-words with Indo-European roots denoting contorting (as when shamans are performing incantations), waking (the dead for instance) or casting lots (to determine destiny), but these are unconvincing. There is an unproven but more plausible link with Slav words derived from the Old Slavonic verbs meaning ‘to know’ which use the root ved- or wied-. Female witches were, in English too, described as ‘wise’ women, as in the equivalent Slovenian vedomec, or Polish wiedźma. The modern German name for witch, hexe, is probably, but again not provably, related to English hag, (Old English haegtesse) an ancient word which persisted in use among the superstitious in the United States, who also adopted ‘hex’ in the 19th century from Pennsylvanian German as a synonym for curse.

(Our relatively innocent domestic companion, the cat, could also double as a witch’s evil familiar, and nowadays as a Hallowe’en character in its own right. Its name, catte in Old English, is obviously related to Dutch kat and German Katze and more distantly to the earlier Latin cattus and Greek catta. Intriguingly, though, the word’s origin might not be Indo-European at all but Afro-Asiatic; in the Nubian language it is kadis, for Berbers kaddîska, and in Arabic qitt.)

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The witch’s male counterpart, the wizard, certainly does derive his name from wisdom or knowing. Wisard, from Old English wys, wise and the suffix (originally French) -ard meaning person, first described a sage or a philosopher before mutating in the 16th century into the practitioner of magic we nowadays caricature in pointed hat and robe. The synonyms sorcerer or sorceress come from French sorcier, enchanter or magician, itself from Latin sors meaning fate, oracular pronouncement, from an Indo-European root denoting binding and sorting.

 

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I’m personally highly resistant to clowns in any form, but particularly the grotesque killer clowns that have been running amok in popular literature, cinema and even public places for the last couple of years. Forgive me, then, if I limit myself to etymology. The noun clowne (cloyne was a variant that has since disappeared) appeared in English in the 1560s, the verb form in 1600. The word originally signified a rustic, a clumsy peasant or simpleton. It is not clear exactly where it came from – some eminent authorities have tried to link it to the Latin colonnus, a farmer or settler, but it seems to others – and to me – that it’s no coincidence that similar-sounding words existed in Scandinavian and Low German usage, all related to our own ‘clod’ and ‘clump’ and evoking something lumpy, dense and crude. English dialects and the English of the tavern often adopted colloquialisms from other parts of Northwest Europe in the Early Modern period. Clown was first used to describe a costumed and painted circus performer in the 1720s and other languages including Welsh, French, Swedish and Slovenian subsequently borrowed the English word in this sense.

 

...for last year’s festival, Marketing Week gave us a snapshot of the commercial implications:

https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/10/27/why-halloween-is-now-crucial-to-some-uk-brands/?cmpid=em~newsletter~weekly_news~n~n&utm_medium=em&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=weekly_news&eid=4232955&sid=MW0001&adg=E5AE84A1-4595-4F7C-B654-36202215BA19

 

HALLOWE’EN CREATURES – ORIGINS AND ETYMOLOGIES

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The reanimated (it had virtually disappeared in Britain until revived in the 1980s in its American incarnation) festival of Hallowe’en draws ever nearer, and its ghastly avatars begin to assemble in the darkness. Wearyingly familiar though their images have become, thanks to commercialisation, the origins of these bugbears’ names are not always straightforward. The lurid orange pumpkin has mutated, its modern name an alteration of ‘pompone’ and ‘pumpion’ which could designate either melon or pumpkin in the 1540s. The English word was adopted from French pompon, from Latin peponem, meaning only melon, from the earlier Greek pepon. The ‘-kin’ suffix, meaning little or cute, was borrowed from Middle Dutch, the ‘pom/pum/pep’ component probably an example of prehistoric sound symbolism whereby the puffing required to say the words imitates the inflation of the bulbous object itself.

In fact it was more often the turnip that was hollowed out and illuminated in England, Scotland (where they are known as ‘tumshies’) and Ireland until recently, pumpkins being an American favourite. But there is a very odd connection between two of Hallowe’en’s most potent symbols in a 19th-century report by the Slovene folklorist Wiesthaler who writes that superstitious Balkan Gypsies believed that pumpkins (and watermelons too) could become possessed and exhibit vampiric characteristics.

 

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Hobgoblin (the ‘hob-‘ is a familiarising nickname, from Hobbe, a variant form of Robbe or Robin) or goblin appeared in English in the 14th century with the sense of mischievous ugly devil or fairy. It was probably borrowed from 12th century French gobelin which is thought to be related to mediaeval German kobold, a household or subterranean sprite, and possibly to the older Greek kobalos which denoted an impudent rogue. Sprite, incidentally, is a modern pronunciation of the Middle English ‘sprit’, a shortened form of spirit, while spook, borrowed by Americans from Dutch in the early 19th century has cognates in German, Swedish and Norwegian and probably comes from an ancient Germanic term for wizardry. Imp has meant little devil since the later 16th century, from the notion of a being that was the ‘offspring of satan’. In Old English ‘impa’ referred to a graft or shoot from a plant, coming to us via Latin impotus, from Greek emphytos, implant, ultimately from a presumed IndoEuropean word *bheu, grow.

 

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Ghosts* are named from Old English gast which meant spirit or soul and could also mean breath. The ‘h’ was added in the 15th century, probably by printers influenced by the Flemish or Middle Dutch form of the word, gheest. Both are related to German geist, spirit, which comes from the presumed proto-Germanic *gaistaz, itself from a presumed Indo-European root *gheis– used to form terms conveying amazement and/or fright. In the same category are the phantom, from Greek phantasma (unreal image, apparition) which became Old French fantosme before being borrowed by English, the spectre retains the French form of a Latin word for an apparition,  spectrum, from the verb specere, to see. Wraith, on the other hand, is a Scottish word, recorded in the 15th century but of unknown provenance. It has been suggested that it is related to writhe or to wrath, or to an Old Norse word, vǫrðr, a guardian spirit or watcher.

 

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Though its spelling now makes it look like a relative of ghost, ghoul was originally Arabic غول gul, the name of an evil spirit, a desert demon recorded in Islamic folklore and said to haunt cemeteries, devour newly-buried cadavers, abduct children and attack travellers. Its root is a verb meaning to seize and it is probably related to galla, a very ancient Akkadian and Sumerian term for a fiend from the netherworlds. The word was anglicised, first as ‘ghul’, in the late 18th century.

 

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Zombie, first recorded in English in an 1819 guidebook to Brazil and popularised in movies of the 1930s, comes via the Haitian Creole word zonbi and Caribbean French zombi, denoting an animated corpse, a staple of voodoo folklore, transplanted from zumbi, fetish and n-zumbi, originally the name of a snake god, in the Kumbunu and Kikongo languages of West Africa.

 

De weerwolf, of wolf-man komt uit de Europese folklore. In het Frans ook wel bekend als loup-garou. Eigenlijk werden de verhalen later pas bekend, maar er zijn wel kleine aanwijzingen te vinden van verhalen rond (of voor) 1200.

 

The werewolf combines the ancient name of the ravenous animal – wulf, later wolf – with the Old English wer, man, which shares an origin with Latin vir (from which we get virile, manly). In the 13th century wer fell out of usage, but the compound expression survived, as it did in other Germanic languages.

For me, though, because I have studied it, and because it is the most complex, the most protean of these beings, it is the vampire whose attributes and incarnations are the most fascinating. The bat was, in Old English, until the 14th century, the bakke, related to Old Scandinavian words such as natbakka, literally ‘nightflapper.’ By 1570, however, ‘bat’, a country dialect alternative, had become the preferred form.

The bat, however, is only one version of the protean vampire. That monster’s many other incarnations are discussed elsewhere on this site.

 

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The venerable ancestors of our modern shapeshifters, from the classical era, are discussed in this two-part blog by Sententiae Antiquae:

Halloween is Next Week: Time for Werewolves!

The Child-Killing Lamia: What’s Really Scary on Halloween is Misogyny

Possibly the most monstrous Hallowe’en disguise of 2017 was revealed by The Poke:

https://www.thepoke.co.uk/2017/10/26/british-kids-dressing-donald-trump-halloween/#.WfHT-Gpw0jA.twitter

*Finally, the ghost emoji is decoded here by John Kelly:

https://blog.emojipedia.org/emojiology-ghost/

SUPERSTITIOUS? – Good luck with that

FINGERS CROSSED

Non e vero ma ci credo (‘It’s not true but I still believe in it’) – Italian saying

 

As the light fades and the creatures of the night gather for another Hallowe’en festival, prepare your candies and cookies to placate the witch, the vampire and the ghoul, but spare a thought, too for their sinister companions. Those cats, bats, owls and spiders are traditional symbols of misfortune in their own right and part of an ancient system of beliefs that still persists in the popular imagination all across our continent. If a black cat crosses your path in any part of mainland Europe (apart, oddly, from Normandy where tortoiseshells are feared), you must expect bad luck to follow. Only in Great Britain is the opposite thought to be true. The cat’s power for good or ill is said by some to derive from the fact that in Ancient Egypt it was sacred; others more convincingly point to its role as the European witch’s familiar in mediaeval times. The bones of bats are carried as protection against evil in Greece, though, awkwardly, in that country killing a bat will put a curse on the perpetrator. Spiders are lucky in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, in Finland if you kill one it will rain the next day. In Slovenia spiders are only unlucky on Monday mornings. As for the night-haunting owl, for centuries an omen of doom, according to French superstition, if a woman catches sight of one during her pregnancy, she is guaranteed to give birth to a girl. Each hoot of the owl, a Welsh tradition maintains, marks a local girl losing her virginity.

Inanimate objects of course can also figure in superstitious beliefs. Horseshoes are hung above the doorway in Britain and France for protection, though in the former they open upwards to contain the luck, in the latter they point downwards to decant the luck on those passing through. Breaking a mirror – symbolising not just one’s image but one’s soul – is everywhere regarded as highly unfortunate. (The seven years bad luck it is said to bring was probably how long it took to find the money to replace such an expensive item three or four hundred years ago). In the same way touching or knocking on wood, perhaps a hangover from pagan tree-hugging or clutching religious relics, wards off evil, while sneezing must be accompanied by a blessing and spitting and throwing salt over your (in most cultures, left) shoulder will keep malignant spirits at bay.

Other beliefs are particular to one nation, and pretty peculiar, too. In Turkey you mustn’t chew chewing gum at night as it will have turned into the flesh of the dead. Italians think seeing a nun is unlucky, Ukrainians a priest, but only before midday. Germans dread seeing old ladies in the morning; in Iceland knitting on the doorstep prolongs the winter, while in Norway knitting your boyfriend a sweater will drive him into the arms of another. In Belgium picking poppies attracts lightning, Danes throw broken dishes at their neighbours at New Year, in Holland you mustn’t sing at the dinner table. In the UK hearing a cuckoo before breakfast used to signal bad luck all that day; hearing it while resting in your bed could be fatal. Avoid bird droppings on your shoulder at all costs if you are Lithuanian, otherwise they are lucky – and in Spain never put a hat on a bed, unless you are a priest administering the last rites.

Many of the theories put forward to explain superstitions are as comically far-fetched as the beliefs themselves. The idea that opening an umbrella indoors is unlucky, it is claimed, comes either from the fact that Christians disapproved of hieroglyphics showing Pharaoh’s sunshade or from the shape it makes which symbolises a broken roof. We may prefer to think that opening huge Victorian umbrellas could easily put out an eye if done in enclosed and crowded spaces – even today’s telescopic versions can take us by surprise. Walking under ladders is almost universally advised against (Russia is apparently the exception), on the grounds that the ladder leaning against a wall represents the gallows, the Holy Trinity or even – the appeal to Ancient Egypt again – the malign power of the pyramid. Sceptics point to the more prosaic possibility of a paint pot, a painter or even the thing itself falling onto one’s head. Coincidentally or not, ladder-carrying chimney sweeps are thought to be lucky in many European countries: in the UK seeing one on your wedding day guarantees lasting happiness while in Germany a model of a sweep fixed to the roof as a weather vane brings good fortune to the household beneath. If you search the internet for an explanation you will be told that William the Conqueror permitted sweeps to wear top hats (William reigned from 1066!), that George II of England – some accounts have George III – invited a sweep to his wedding after he calmed a ferocious dog, or that an unnamed woman saved a falling sweep who gratefully proposed marriage and was accepted. To modern eyes neither the dirty, underpaid sweeps of yesteryear nor their hapless assistants, the ‘climbing boys’ as young as seven who cleaned inside tall chimneys, appear very fortunate. A more subtle explanation would be that the sweep was associated with the hearth, the focus of the family, and with coal which the Roma among others considered a sign of wealth. The last word, though, must go to a present-day German chimney sweep, Heiko Kirmis: they bring good fortune

“because they prevent fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Three centuries ago the philosopher Voltaire was a famous disapprover, opining that “superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”
But whether or not superstitions make sense is really not the point, says Parisian musician Justin Chambord. “They add a sense of enchantment, a tinge of magic to everyday life. Negotiating all the banal frustrations of a typical day becomes a sort of adventure when you are dodging ladders, crossing your fingers, knocking on wood and fingering your St Christopher medallion.” For retired Slovenian manager Petra Mlakar, though, the colourful folklore of which superstitions are a part is a hangover from a primitive past with no relevance to modern realities. “Our parents’ and grandparents’ lives were ruled by dozens, if not hundreds of superstitions but almost nobody remembers them now.” Certainly beliefs change: the fireflies which flicker at the edge of Slovene forests in early summer used to be feared as they were thought to be the souls of dead relatives. Nowadays, for teenagers at least, they signify luck in romantic relationships.

The commonsense explanation of superstitions is that they date from a time when most humans were at the mercy of their environment. In pre-modern peasant societies the average fearful person was a helpless victim of the seasons, prey to natural disasters, disease, random persecution by the rich and powerful – not to mention witches, ghosts and demons. One’s destiny was not under one’s control and an appeal to the supernatural was the only solution.

But for citizens of the ultra-complex, accelerated societies of today, struggling with modern technology, information overload and economic uncertainty, anxiety levels are, or are perceived to be, at an all-time high, while our own ability to influence the wider world is still in doubt. Real and irrational fears persist and the OCD-like behaviour that they trigger mean that many of us still reach for magical remedies, whether we truly believe in them or not. Surveys show an astonishingly high level of superstitious behaviour – in one 86% of respondents confessed to some sort of private ritual or wish-fulfilment act, while 15% of trained scientists admitted to a fear of the number 13.

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that superstitious behaviour is linked to high levels of anxiety, but some, slightly less predictably, have suggested that ‘magical’ rituals work, others that superstitious people are actually more fortunate. Research has confirmed what we know: that sportsmen and women and students, with their mascots, lucky socks and pre-performance rituals are particularly prone to superstition. Both groups are of course engaged in high-stakes activities where luck can sometimes make all the difference.

In a 2003 study by the British Association for the Advancement of Science the aptly named Professor Richard Wiseman found that people used superstition to manufacture their own luck, but that this could be good or bad depending on their attitude. Those who followed practices thought to create good luck – touching wood and crossing fingers, for instance – actually experienced it while those who believed in unlucky numbers, broken mirrors and open umbrellas were measurably less lucky in their lives. A 2010 survey by the University of Cologne in Germany found that subjects could be persuaded that a random ‘lucky’ object, a ball for instance, would help them and this then significantly improved their performance in tasks involving memory and motor skills. Reliance on the completely spurious ‘charm’ boosted concentration and confidence in individuals and teams allowed to keep their charms scored better than teams denied them.

When you stop and think about it, though, it really is rather unlikely that wearing lucky underpants to an interview (in Serbia they must be worn inside-out) is going to land you the job. Nor is it objectively probable that avoiding the cracks between the paving stones or putting shoes on in the right order is going to result in a successful day, that kissing the fuselage before takeoff or choosing a special seat number on the plane will make your journey any safer. How can Friday 13th be unlucky for some nationalities while for Spaniards and Greeks it’s Tuesday 13th, for Italians the 17th? Why on earth should wearing green bring misfortune, yet wearing polka dots on New Year’s Day (as some French ladies assert) have the opposite effect?

However rational we try to be, the urge to exert some control over our little corner of the universe by any means possible can be irresistible. Why tempt fate? Better to be on the safe side and keep your rabbit’s foot keyring with you, even though no-one has ever explained that particular choice of charm. Search for a four-leaf clover (if Polish you will eat it when you find it), or you can always buy one online for around $25. After all, in the words of US author Judith Viorst, “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”

 

Don’t you know it’s bad luck to be superstitious?

Thank your lucky stars if you aren’t!

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A version of this article first appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine

On the origin of the s-word itself:

“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?