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 
 

Image result for images of christmas ivy

 

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.

 

Image result for halloween vintage postcards

 

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

 

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/

 

THE RETURN OF THE COUNTESS – 2

 

Image result for mediaeval hungary map

 

Interest in Countess Elisabeth Bathory (the 16th century ‘Countess Dracula’, ‘the Blood Countess’) hasn’t waned  (see previous post). VICE Australia editor, photographer and film-maker Julian Morgans returned from an expedition to her castle in Slovakia and we talked about this enduring icon…

http://www.vice.com/en_au/read/inside-the-ruined-castle-of-medieval-serial-killer-elizabeth-bathory