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What do you call the man in the red suit?

 

Last year on the OxfordWords blog, we posted a picture of a rather rotund gentleman, with a white beard and moustache, and some fetching white faux-fur trimmings on his red suit and hat.

We asked ‘Who is this?’ and gave you a choice of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Santa, Saint Nick, Santy, Kris Kringle, or ‘other’.

 A Claus by any other name

In response, close to 50% of you identified the bearded gent as ‘Santa Claus’, with ‘Father Christmas’ the second most popular moniker for 23% of respondents:

A geographical analysis shows that while 80% of respondents in the United States opted for Santa Claus or Santa, close to 60% of Britons prefer ‘Father Christmas’. Canadian respondents had the widest range of answers, with Santa Claus at 40%, and the other options getting an even sprinkle of holiday magic, including several votes for Kris Kringle (which is derived from the German Christkindlein, or “Christ Child”).

Those who ticked ‘Other’ usually listed names from their native languages, with Papá Noel, Babbo Natale, and der Weinachtsmann all making a seasonal appearance. Other names not recorded in the survey include Père Noël (French), Sinterklaas (Dutch), and Grandfather Frost (Russian).

The story of (Father) Christmas. . . ho ho ho

The jolly generous chap has been around for hundreds of years, in one form or another. The Oxford English Dictionarys earliest citation of ‘Father Christmas’ is currently from 1658.

The modern-day Santa Claus is a conglomeration of several traditions. The oldest is Saint Nicolas, a monk born c.280 in Patara, Turkey, who was canonized during the 9th century for his generosity to the poor.

Under the name “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” Washington Irving wrote A History of New York in 1809, acknowledging Saint Nicolas as the patron saint of New York. Clement Clarke Moore‘s 1823 poem known today as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” helped to establish a contemporary vision of Saint Nicolas as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

Starting in the 1930s, Coca-Cola illustrator Haddon Sundblom promoted the contemporary image of Santa Claus in the company’s advertising. According to Coca-Cola, even though it’s often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the colour of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.

- Malie Lalor

7 facts to help you win all your word games this holiday season

- Oxford Dictionaries

How to write the perfect thank-you card (or, common mistakes in English usage)

I recently overheard someone say that grammar and spelling were the preserve of the over-50s. It is no exaggeration when I confess that my under-50-year-old self almost burst into tears.

Some very common mistakes in everyday usage can easily be avoided if you take a minute to think about what exactly it is that you want to express. I personally find it useful if you can name what you’re dealing with: say, a direct or an indirect object, or an adjective as opposed to an adverb. If you know the difference, you are more likely to get it right.

We each have our personal bugbears, but here’s a selection of a few mistakes that crop up on a regular basis.

its vs. it’s

In grammatical terms, ‘its’ is a possessive determiner (just like my, your, his, her, our, and their). Now, what exactly does that mean? It indicates that something belongs to or is associated with a thing that has been mentioned previously:

‘She loves the house because of its stylish interior’.

‘It’s’ on the other hand is a contraction of it + is, as in:

‘She loves the house because it’s very close to her work’.

You may be thinking, “Yes, thanks, I know that, but I still get it wrong.” If you’re not sure, the best thing to do is replace the relevant part of the sentence with ‘it is’ and see if it still makes sense. Going back to the first example, this test would give you ‘She loves the house because of it is stylish interior’, which should make you feel a little uncomfortable.

More guidance on apostrophes

-ise / -ize

It is a common misconception that ‘–ise’ is British English while ‘–ize’ is American English. In fact, both are correct in British English. Thus, both ‘Ian helped me organize the party’ and ‘Ian helped me organise the party’ are perfectly acceptable in British English.

Generally, you should aim to be consistent and stick to one of the two within the same piece of writing. As usual, there are some cases in which you are not allowed to cherry-pick your favourite.

The following are always spelt ‘–ise’ in both British and American English:

advertise compromise exercise revise
advise despise improvise supervise
apprise devise Incise surmise
chastise disguise prise (meaning ‘open’) surprise
comprise excise promise televise

In British English, there are also a few verbs ending in ‘–yse’ that are spelt ‘–yze’ in American English:

analyse catalyse electrolyse paralyse
breathalyse dialyse hydrolyse psychoanalyse

More about ise, ize, and yse

fewer / less

This is a mistake many native speakers make, but if you think about it, the rule makes perfect sense. The main question you should be asking yourself is whether what you are referring to is countable. For example, you would say ‘an amount of sugar’ [not easily countable], but ‘a number of apples’ [countable]. As such, you might alter a cake recipe and decide to use ‘less sugar’ or ‘fewer apples’ (foolish, if you ask me, but definitely possible). Also, use ‘fewer’ if referring to people or things in the plural:

‘The museum had fewer visitors this year than last year’.

‘Less’, on the other hand, should be used:

a)  If you want to refer to something that isn’t easily countable or doesn’t have a plural form, e.g. ‘Next time, I will have less rice as it was really filling.’
b)  With numbers (when on their own), e.g. ‘The number of guests has gone down from more than 30 to less than 10.’
c)  With expressions of measurement, e.g. ‘Oxford is less than 100 miles away from London.’

More about less vs fewer

I/me

I’ and ‘me’ are often used incorrectly, and if you are used to using one or the other in a certain way, it’s difficult to get it out of your system. Both are personal pronouns, but their function within a sentence determines which of the two needs to be used. The general rule is to use ‘I’ when the pronoun is the subject of the verb, as in ‘Dan and I went to London at the weekend’. In this example, ‘Dan and I’ is the subject of the sentence (You could ask: Who went to London on the weekend? And the answer would be: Dan and I did.). ‘Me’ on the other hand is used when the pronoun is the object of a verb or a preposition: ‘Kat went to London with Dan and me’. In this example, ‘Dan and me’ is the object of the sentence and Kat the subject.

More about when to use ‘me’ instead of ‘I’

- Cornelia Haase