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Sing a song of Christmas

A change is not as good as a rest

Christmas brings out the conservative in us all, especially in children. This summer we dismantled a ridiculously large stone clad shelf that was built in the sixties to support a weighty cathode ray tube. Now there’s a space beside the fire which would be, I suggested, perfect for the Christmas tree: a big improvement on its traditional corner where all those spiky green needles prevent access to the West Wing boxed sets and a run of Pevsners for the entire festive season. To listen to my daughter you’d have thought I wanted to replace Rudolph with a satnav and serve up roast reindeer on Christmas Day.

So the tree’s going where it’s always gone and I’ve learnt my lesson: each Christmas must be like the one before. This is the spirit which preserves archaic and obsolete language in stories and carols, and makes Christmas such an interesting time for logophiles.

Rest you merry, scared shepherds

Some words are prompted by the pastoral setting of Christ’s birth, manger and shepherd for example. I come across these only at Christmas because I live in a city, they’re not obsolete, but look what the shepherds do:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field. (Luke 2:8)

Many who listen to these words from the King James Bible, now 400 years old, would shudder at the thought of modernizing them. Abide is in our dictionary, where it says that it is archaic, and that, in this sense, it means to live or dwell.

When the angel came the shepherds were ‘sore afraid’. This adverb is also in our dictionary, meaning extremely or severely, and the example we give is this exact phrase from Luke’s gospel. It’s a sure sign that you’ve got an unusual word when the book you found it in is the one the dictionary quotes.

There’s another example in ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen.’ Rest in this sense, with an adjective, is now unusual, except in the phrase rest assured, as in ‘Rest assured, young lady, there’ll be Brussels sprouts at Christmas’. The line in the carol means ‘May God keep you gentlemen feeling merry’.

Good King Wenceslas, nappies, and maps

I remember how at school we tittered through the first four verses of Good King Wenceslas, our copies of Carols for Choirs shaking so much that we could hardly read the fifth verse:

‘In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod Which the Saint had printed.’

To hear the emphasis we put into sod, (a swear word in Britain) you might have thought we were all terribly enthusiastic about archaic language. I did contrive to fit the word into my story about what I was going to do in the holidays but Mr Webster wasn’t having it. ‘“Turf” is the appropriate modern word’, he wrote in my margin, and I never used sod again. Still, the fact that I understand Emily Dickinson’s poem Through the Dark Sod–as Education is entirely down to the sod in Good King Wenceslas.

My favourite preserved old word is in the appropriately named Old Christmas Returned:

The cooks shall be busied by day and by night In roasting and boiling, for taste and delight; Their senses in liquor that’s nappy they’ll steep, Though they be afforded to have little sleep.

This sounds funnier in Britain, where diapers are nappies, than it does in America where nappy is not a nice word. We need the OED to explain it. Nappy in the carol has nothing to do with the British word for a diaper, which comes from napkin, and so from the Latin mappa, which meant a cloth to the Romans and which also gave us our word map when someone in the Middle Ages had the idea to call his diagram of the whole world, because it was drawn on a sheet, a mappa mundi. (The change from M to N for napkin is odd but it did happen with a few other Latin words after the Norman Conquest.)

Our dictionary’s second meaning of nappy probably shares its origin with the ‘nappy’ in the carol, although the carol’s word is much older, dating back to the fifteenth century. It comes from nap meaning the raised hairs or threads on the surface of fabric. The hairs probably suggested to someone the foam on beer and the word came to mean this too, and then to mean strong or heady beer. This is what Benjamin Franklin meant when he wrote in 1733 ‘Poor Mug… Shouldest thou produce double Beer, nappy Ale.., or cordial Tiff; yet for all these shouldst thou not be praised.’

The great and the good … and taxes

Great is an interesting word. It may well have its origins in an Old Norse word for porridge with its coarse, thick oats. Great extended its meaning to thick, and then more generally big and now it crops up in a great many places, and we’re all great about that   great-grandmother, Great Scott! the great white shark, the Great Lakes, the Great Wall of China, Great Britain, and the Great Barrier Reef. But you don’t tend to hear it used to describe pregnancy anymore, except at Christmas:

‘And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David). To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.’ (Luke 2:4-5)

One word in these verses from Luke describes a familiar blight with a familiar word, a word for which OED’s oldest example is from 1290, and a word which looks set to remain overused in 2012. Here it is again:

 ‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.’ (Luke 2:1)

Tax could be said to begin the Christmas story, in that it gave Joseph and Mary the reason to go to Bethlehem, but I hope we can lay it down for a day or two during the festivities. I hope too that you abide on the sod at the threshold of the New Year with a glass of something sore nappy and see a future great with good cheer. And rest you merry.

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