Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Words of Yule

Words of Yule
Now that Chanukkah is over, another annual event filled with etymological intrigue is upon us. Ah, but isn’t etymological intrigue alive for all seasons?

The word(s) Christmas showed up in Old English in 1123 as Cristes mæsse. It’s no surprise that the first bit heralds from the word Christ, while the second comes from the celebration of mass. More intriguing to me are the arrival dates of the following:

Father Christmas, late 1400s
Christmas box, 1611
Christmastide 1620
Christmas tree 1835
Christmas card 1843

Xmas, which I’ve always assumed is a tacky invention of modern Americans, actually showed up in 1551 in England, the X coming from the first letter of Christos in Greek. Before that, examples of Xrmas (beginning with the first two letters of Christos in Greek) occurred as early as 1100. It turns out we tacky Americans don’t hold responsibility for this one. That 1551 citing comes from the arguably erudite E. Lodge, British historian.

And who knew that yule & jolly are kissing cousins? Both appear to come from a pre-Christian winter feast known in Old Norse as jol. Jolly showed up in English in 1300 after jol made its way through French, becoming jolif, meaning festive, pretty, merry, or amorous, whereas yule (also born of jol) made its way through the Old English word geola, which meant Christmas day or Christmastide. Here’s hoping those amorous Old Norsefolk who gave us these words experienced many a jolly jol in doing so.

Please leave a comment, & whether you celebrate with friends, with family, or all by your lonesome, may your Christmas mass, your time around the Yule log, or your general jolliness be downright glorious.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED & Etymonline.


  1. I love getting enlightened here every week. X(r)mas comes from the 12th century? "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" isn't just about a lyricist making a lame rhyme? What amazing things facts are! I think our present Christmas jollity, with the fir tree and the old guy from the North Pole bringing goodies has a lot more to do with Norse Yule than with a kid getting born in a Mediterranean desert town, but maybe that's just me. Happy Yuletide!

  2. And remember that good ol' Yuletide song?:
    "Good King Wenceslaus looked out,
    on his feets uneven."

  3. Ahoy back to you Steve & Anne,
    Thanks for coming by, & whether you celebrate fir trees, an old guy from the north pole, a kid in a Mediterranean town, or uneven feets, may it all have great meaning.

  4. I wonder what the Norse did to celebrate Jol. Tree decorating and gift exchanging perhaps? Thanks for another wonderful word education. Happy, happy, merry, merry and jolly, jolly!

  5. Hi Christine,
    Great question. I can find lots of sources in which historians are surmising what went on during jol celebrations, but the only thing they all seem to agree on is that it involved the drinking of good ale -- lots of it.
    Jolly jol to you.