Luke’s Languages: A Festivus for the rest of us

Hi, everyone. Normally I’m annoyed by how early they start with the Christmas songs, Santa floats, and store displays complete with countdowns, but somehow I’ve started to appreciate it more lately. Maybe it’s just because each year school gets a little harder, or I’m a little more tired of it, and I enjoy the promise of a break.

Whatever it is, you bet I’m selling out this week. That’s right: I’m going to give you the etymologies of some seasonal words.

To make it at least a little academic, let me say that etymology—the history of words, how they’ve changed in shape and meaning—is one of the oldest branches of linguistics. It’s been done for millennia, although the early Greeks and Romans guesses’ about words’ origins were often uninformed and unlikely, in light of what we now know. (Still, in one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says something rather ahead of his time on the subject of language change: “Names have been so twisted in all manner of ways, that I should not be surprised if the old language when compared with that now in use would appear to us to be a barbarous tongue.”)

One of the best etymological methods is philology, or the study of written records. We can judge a word’s meaning by the context it’s used in, find authors’ direct comments about its meaning (like in a dictionary), or notice an earlier spelling more telling of where it came from—like crevis, an older spelling of “crayfish”. Crevis was a borrowed French word, but English speakers later misanalyzed the second half as “fish”, obscuring its origin.

Those are all powerful clues, but they’re not the only ones. We can also look at cognates in other languages and dialects; for example, the fact that German Hund means “dog” is a hint of how “hound” used to just mean “dog”.

We use the comparative method and other relatively recent analyses to work backwards from the sounds of a word to what they probably used to be.

We can also look at trends of change we’ve noticed in recorded history; for example, in The Study of Words, C.S. Lewis notes that words for “harmless” and “uncomplicated” tend to converge with “stupid” (like “simple” did), and words for “clever” tend to converge with “deceitful”—like “crafty” and “cunning”, both of which once had more to do with ingenuity. Based on these trends, we can do a kind of linguistic calculus to guess what another word originally meant.

Together, all these methods provide us with some pretty darn good ways of getting to the bottom of a word’s origins. Some good sources for looking up etymologies are and the Oxford English Dictionary, which all U of T students have access to.

So let’s see what etymologies we can reflect on this December.

Christmas: From late Old English Christes maesse, meaning “Christ’s mass”. This “mass”, by the way, has nothing to do with “mass” in physics. It’s from the Latin for “to send away”—or to dismiss. Apparently, that was the most salient part of mass for the speakers who coined the word.

Noel: From French noel, which comes through many changes from Latin natalis “birth”, as in Latin natalis dies “birthday”.

Yule: Ultimately from Old Norse jol, referring to a pagan holiday absorbed into Christmas. “The ultimate origin […] is obscure,” reports the OED.

Kwanzaa: From Swahili (an East African language) kwanza “first”, as in matunda ya kwanza “first fruits of the harvest”. Coined in 1966 for the holiday that began as a symbol of the Pan-Africanism movement.

Hanukkah: Are you confused why it’s sometimes spelled “Chanukah”? Well, one thing that tripped me up in Israel is the “h”. Of Ancient Hebrew’s original three “h” sounds, only two remain in Modern Hebrew: one that’s the same as the regular English “h” and the famous fricative that’s often spelled “ch”. The third one has merged with “ch”… but is generally spelled “h” on English signs.

Anyway, Chanukah is most likely a derivation of HNK, the Hebrew base for words related to “dedicate”, but there are also folk etymologies, which often sound too good to be true and are based on post-hoc deconstruction. One of them says it’s from hanu “they rested” plus k’h, which, thanks to a system where every letter has a numeric value, means “25”—yielding “they rested on the 25th”. Hmm…

Chrismukkah: Clearly a blending of “Christmas” and “Hanukkah”. It’s the faux holiday for interfaith families, once featured on The O.C. Sceptical? Maybe it’s time to check out

Festivus: The “-us” is a false Latin-sounding suffix for “festive”, but it might be inappropriate, since “festive”, “feast”, and related words are ultimately from Latin festus “joyful, merry, festive”. It’s the faux holiday for people who, like Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, hate all the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas. You might be surprised to know that the holiday that features the “Airing of Grievances”, the “Feats of Strength”, and the “Festivus Pole” existed before Seinfeld… and is now celebrated by people all over the world.

Santa Claus: You’ve probably heard this one before: say “Saint Nicholas” enough times and in enough odd ways and you might get something close to “Santa Claus”. As the January 25, 1808 issue of the satirical periodical Salmagundi put it, “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” (Isn’t it great what you can find on the OED?)

Boxing Day: Surprisingly touchingly, says it originally referred to the day on which “postmen and others expect to receive a Christmas present, originally in reference to the custom of distributing the contents of the Christmas box, which was placed in the church for charity collections”. I guess nobody ever used to give postmen presents; maybe they thought postmen are only good for delivering things, not receiving them.

Scrooge: As far as anyone knows, Dickens invented this surname for A Christmas Carol.

Grinch: Similarly, “Grinch” is an invention of Dr. Seuss.

Carol: From French; ultimately from a Greek compound of khoros “chorus” and aulos “flute” or “reed instrument”, which came in Middle Latin to be used of “a dance to the flute”.

Xmas: Sometimes Christians complain about how “Xmas” takes the “Christ” out of “Christmas”. If only they knew that the “X” isn’t an English letter; it’s the Greek letter chi, the initial of the Greek name for “Christ”. It’s been used to abbreviate the name “Christ” by Christians and others for about 900 years. Actually, the first recorded use of the abbreviation is Xres maesse—“Christmas”.

Okay, that’s all for now. If you think of any other seasonal words you’d like to look up, you know where to find them. Trust me, if you like language, it’s an excellent and educational way to lose a few hours.

Merry whatever-you-celebrate!

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