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December 25, 2015  |  Friday words #9, 2015-12-25  |  2996 hit(s)

It's time again for Friday words, but it's also Christmas, hey. In the list of new (to me) terms I've encountered recently, none seem particularly festive, so instead I'll just have a couple of seasonal etymological nuggets.

The first is carol: have you ever wondered why Christmas songs, and pretty much only Christmas songs, have a ladyname? Haha. We get this word via French, where carole refers to a dance or celebration. In English, the progression seems to be that we imported carol to mean a ring dance or the "merry-making of which such dances formed a leading feature" (OED). This extended to the music that accompanied such dances, but eventually narrowed in modern English to just religious, and specifically Christmas, songs.

The other term for today is mistletoe. Seriously: toe? Turns out the word is more or less straightforward, as long as you happen to speak Old English. It's a compound: mistle+toe, and it has cognates in most (all?) the Germanic languages. The mistle part refers to the plant. There's speculation that mistle might ultimately derive from the same root as mix (the berries are dispersed in, that is, mixed with bird droppings) or mash (the berries are sticky). The -toe part, which I think we can agree is the funner end of the compound, was originally -tan, which meant twig. Here's the great part: as far back as Old English, English speakers confused the -tan in mistiltan with tān, the plural of , meaning toe. No doubt there were thundering blog posts about how ðos Kids to-day can't speak Anglo-Saxon properly.

Speaking of Christmas-related words, I must commend to you the series that the lexicographer Katherine Barber has done in which she examines the sometimes surprising words in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Like, those "calling birds"? Not because they call. And why it's ok to refer to the Virgin Mary as a "bird." Here's the link:

12 Days of Wordlady: Partridge

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