Rudolph and other Christmas-related words
Christmas comes but once a year, as some celebrants are wont to say, as do many of the words special to the season. Like so many Christmas lights, let’s untangle some holiday word histories–twelve, fittingly enough–to see what they might illuminate.
A number of animals give us their season’s greetings during Christmastime. Perhaps the most famous is Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, whose etymological fame might just send him skyward. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name is a compound, joining hruod, “fame,” seen in the Germanic base giving us wolf.
Speaking of Rudolph, what is the rein– in reindeer, anyway? Like Rudolph, reindeer is also a compound, although it was borrowed into English from one of the Scandinavian languages (like the Old Norse hreindýri). The first part refers to the animal itself, but is of very uncertain origin; one possibility is that it could be from an Indo-European root referring to the creature’s spectacular antlers: *ker-, “horn,” source of the very same word. (The asterisk means the root is reconstructed.) The second part is indeed related to deer, originally any four-legged beast. At root may be an Indo-European root for “breath,” thus “living.”
While not deer in the modern sense, cows, sheep, and horses are quadrupeds often depicted in the mangers of Christian nativity scenes, and for good reason: the word manger is attested in the mid-1300s, referring to the trough such animals ate from. Manger is from the French mangeure (a “crib” or “manger”; think manger, “to eat”), which is ultimately from the Latin mandere, “to chew.” This verb is also behind mange and mandible.
And what is a nativity after all? According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has long named the feast observing the birth of Jesus Christ. This word is Latin (from a verb for “be born”) by way of French and related to words such as native, nascent, naive, and Noël. If we trace its family tree back far enough, we get the Indo-European root *gen-, which proliferated into everything from gentle to kind to puny.
If autumn has pumpkin spice, then Christmas has gingerbread, whose seasonings saturated the lattes we drink and cookies we chew on. Gingerbread has nothing to do with bread: the word was so fashioned after the word bread due to confusion with the last bit of its Latin origin, gingibratum, from gingiber (ginger).
Rudolph may really have gotten around: gingiber is traced further back to Greek and the Sanskrit çṛŋgavēra yet before that. Some have argued the Sanskrit means “horn body,” due to its antler-like appearance. More probably, the Oxford English Dictionary proposes, the Sanskrit is from a Malayalam (Southwest Indian) word, inchi-ver, with inchi meaning “root”.
Perhaps you will wash down your gingerbread with some eggnog. Another compound, eggnog mixes, well, egg and nog. Nog is a “strong ale,” the OED notes, perhaps comparable with the Scots nugged ale, “ale warmed with a hot poker.” Such a poker might resemble a knag or poking might be like giving a nudge.
If Christmas words like compounds, then Christmas drinks like egg, which is often used to thicken mulled wine or beer. The OED again gives us much to mull over on the origin of this mull. It could be connected to Germanic mill, like its ground-up spices, or another meaning of mull signifying “to soften,” which mill is in fact related to. It could be connected to different drinks, such as the Latinate mulse, a honey-based drink, or mol, a type of beer in Dutch.
After all this drink, you might be feeling merry. The word is an old one, appearing as merge in Old English, pronounced in two syllables and originally meaning “causing pleasure.” In spite of its age, merry ultimately goes back to an Indo-European root for “short.” The root also yields the English mirth and brief, connected to pleasure via the sense of a pastime, something that “shortens the time,” hence is “entertaining” and “pleasing.”
One such holiday pastime is caroling, a ring-dance in the 1300s, narrowed to today’s sense of holiday singing in the 1500s. This carol (the given name is unrelated) could be from the same Greek khoraules, a “flute player” that accompanied a chorus. Indeed, the Greek joins khoros (“chorus”) and autos (“reed”).
Christmas carols themselves feature some seasonally distinct words. To hark (the herald angels) is “to hear.” To deck (the halls) is “to cover.” To troll (the ancient yuletide carol) is about singing merrily in a round, probably related to “roll.”
Other sources propose that carol is from the Latin corolla, a “crown” but also “garland.” Garland and wreath are etymologically woven from Indo-European roots for “twist” and “turn,” suggesting their construction–just like the woven silver and gold in tinsel. Tinsel may well be from the French estincelle, a “spark” and source of stencil, from the Latin scintilla, also “spark” and source of scintillating.
Yuletide is Yule time: Christmas. The OED cites yule all the way back to Old English, referring to December and January. The origins of Christmas are complicated, as is yule. It is connected to the Old Norse jól, “a heathen feast lasting twelve days.” Some have seen this as the source of jolly, while others see jolly originating in joy.
…And a partridge in a pear tree.
Finally, ’tis truly the season to be jolly. Partridge is from the Greek pérdesthai, “to break wind” (yes, fart is in fact related), so named for the “noise it make as the bird flies away.” Perhaps this holiday season we all really should be singing, “Do you hear what I hear?”