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Trolling yuletide carols: weird words in five famous Christmas songs

Whether you go a’wassailing, participate in a church choir, or simply like to sing along with a radio tuned to a festive station, at some point you may have found yourself in the middle of a Christmas carol, struck with the thought: what does that word even mean? Or even what am I actually singing?!

It’s true: though many can sing at least the first verse of dozens of carols purely by heart, they will often sing words they would never use (or perhaps know how to use) in everyday conversation. Indeed, many of the Christmas carols so beloved over the holidays are hundreds of years old—and though the song remains the same, the audience and the English they speak do not.

Hark the herald angels sing

This year, try singing this carol with its original title: ‘Hark how all the welkin rings’! Welkin is a very old word (at least from the 9th century) that originally meant “a cloud”; and indeed, modern German uses the cognate Wolke to refer to a cloud. In the original title of this carol, welkin is used in a later sense meaning “the apparent arch or vault of heaven overhead”.

The word hark is also related to German, in the word horchen—which interestingly can also mean “to eavesdrop”.

The first nowell

Originally, the word nowell was a French interjection for joy which entered the English language in the 14th century (in fact, Chaucer uses it in ‘The Franklin’s Tale’: “Biforn hym stant brawen of tosked swyn, And Nowel crieth euery lusty man”); shortly thereafter, the word nowell came to refer to “the feast of Christmas” (a sense that is now obsolete, but retained as a rare sense of the related word noël). In the carol, the “wise men three” offer gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Gold requires no explanation, but how many carolers know what myrrh and frankincense are? Myrrh, in fact, is a fragrant gum resin obtained from trees of the genus Commiphora; the word comes from Old English myrra, myrre, via Latin from Greek murra, of Semitic origin, and may be compared with Arabic murr, meaning “bitter”. Frankincense is another type of aromatic gum resin, but obtained typically from the Boswellia sacra tree (native to Somalia); this word comes from Old French franc encens: literally “high-quality incense”.

Away in a manger

Though “Away in a Manger” is one of the most-sung Christmas carols, and though many probably know that a manger is a long open box or trough for horses or cattle to eat from, it is probably not very well-known that the word manger is in fact related to mandible! “Manger” comes from Old French mangeure, literally “place for eating”, ultimately from the Latin verb mandūcāre “to chew”; “mandible” comes from the related Latin verb mandere, to chew.

Another uncommon word in this popular carol is found in the phrase:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes.

What does it mean when cattle low? Simply: they moo! This is, in fact, the original meaning of the verb low. It may be cognate with the Icelandic verb hlóa, to roar or bellow—a word from the same Indo-European base as the ancient Greek κικλήσκειν “to call”, and (with a suffix) the classical Latin clāmāre, “to shout” (think of the word clamor).

Deck the halls

You might wonder, when singing this carol, what exactly we are doing to the halls when we deck them with boughs of holly. (I, at least, would as a child confusedly imagine a person punching walls in a hallway, in a more modern sense of the verb: “to knock someone to the ground with a punch”). However, deck in this sense actually means “to decorate or adorn brightly or festively” and comes from Middle Dutch decken “to cover”. The word is related to the noun deck (of a ship, etc.), originally denoting canvas used to make a covering (especially on a ship); deck came to mean the covering itself, later denoting a solid surface serving as roof and floor.

The second verse of this famous Christmas carol also has some neat etymological background that you might not think of when singing it:

Don we now our gay apparel
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
Fa la la la la, la la la la

Don, the verb meaning “to put on clothing”, is actually a contraction of ‘do on’ with the same meaning (from Song of Solomon in the Coverdale Bible “I haue put off my cote, how can I do it on agayne?”). The other odd verb in this verse—troll—means “to sing something in a happy and carefree way” and comes from late Middle English, in the sense ‘stroll’ or ‘roll’. Interestingly, the verb troll has a relatively new meaning related to the Internet: “to make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting”. But this verb (in either sense) is not, in fact, related to the frightening mythical creature most would know this word by! (Though it’s easy to imagine that people who troll in this newer sense would look like one.)

Yuletide, as you probably know, is an archaic word for “Christmas” or “Christmastime”. The word Yule comes from the Old English gēol(a) for “Christmas Day”, and may be compared with Old Norse jól, originally applied to a heathen festival lasting twelve days, and later to Christmas. Tide, on the other hand, has origins in the Old English tīd, “time, period, era” (and is related to Dutch tijd and German Zeit, as well as ultimately to the word time). We tend to know tide, however, as the rising or falling of the sea; both senses are etymologically related (indeed, the ocean’s tide is closely bound with both ancient and current conceptions of time). However, the marine sense first dates to later Middle English.

Here we come a’wassailing

Wassail, originally a noun from at least as far back as the 13th century, was a salutation to drink the health of a person, used when presenting them with a cup of wine—similar to the exclamation cheers. Wassail, from Middle English wæs hæil, is a borrowing from Old Norse ves heill, literally “be in good health”, and could be countered with the response ‘Drinkhail!’ (‘drink to your health’). Today, we see a relative of the obsolete adjective hæil in the English verb hail “to salute, greet”.  Eventually, the word wassail came to refer to the drink itself (often, it seems, a spiced ale or cider) that was used for the toast. Wassail is used as a verb in this well-known carol, and means to go from house to house at Christmas singing carols—presumably in order to be given a steaming cup of wassail as thanks.

Regardless of how, when, or why you are singing Christmas carols this season, we hope that the experience is enriched—along with friends and family—by a deeper understanding of those words so familiar and yet so wholly unfamiliar.

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