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 22, 2016

Words o' the season

Words o’ the season

Recently, controversy has erupted regarding the use of merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Though the controversy is intriguing, I find myself etymologically interested in the difference between wishing someone a merry time vs. wishing that same someone a happy time.

Merry made its way into Old English before records of such things were kept. Merry meant agreeable, sweet, pleasantly or melodiously. Merry’s source was a Proto-Germanic word meaning brief. Yes, brief. Some argue the connection came through the idea that happiness is fleeting, therefore merriness is also fleeting. Others argue a connection to the thinking behind the idiom time flies when you’re having fun or the idea that one enjoys one’s pastime in brief jots between sessions of getting more important work done. During Middle English, merry broadened its meanings to include fine, pleasant-sounding, pleasant-tasting, handsome, & of course, there was the often satirically used Merrie Olde England.

Happy made its way into the language in the late 1300s. It originally meant lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous, or turning out well. These meanings morphed within the century to very glad, which grew in the following century to mean pleased & content.

Blessed is another adjective we hear over the holidays. The adjective form showed up in English in the 1200s, initially meaning both supremely happy & consecrated. Blessed came from the verb bless, which seems to have been a part of Old English from the start, initially meaning to consecrate, make holy or give thanks. The verb bless has what to the modern sensibility seems an undignified beginning. It came from a Proto-Germanic word, meaning to hallow or mark with blood. Those who first translated the English Bible appear to have chosen this word in an attempt to make the newly arriving Christian religion feel familiar.

Joy is another word we see & hear at the holidays. Joy appeared in English in the 1200s meaning a feeling of pleasure & delight. It came through the French word joie, which meant delight, bliss, joyfulness (& was also used to refer to erotic pleasure). The French word came from a Latin word meaning expressions of pleasure or sensual delight. The Latin word’s source — the grandmother word of all this joy -- was a Proto-Indo-European word meaning rejoice, which throws some light on how those Latin-&-French speaking folks might have been rejoicing.

May the season find you experiencing whatever sort of joy, blessedness, happiness or merriment appeals most to you.




Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.

8 comments:

  1. I can't stand all this joyity. That said, have a happy, a merry, and of course a joyous whatever.

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    1. Hey Steve - and the same to you. Thanks for coming by.

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  2. Stacey N. here: Food for thought: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/merrychristmas.shtml

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  3. Stacey N. Here: My brother-in-law is from the UK. He says "Happy Christmas" is preferred since being "merry" implies that one has indulged in a few (or more) adult beverages. Have you heard of that viewpoint before? Cheers!

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    1. Hi Stacey - There's definitely a leaning toward MERRY in the states & HAPPY across the pond, & though I've heard the tipsy argument, I couldn't verify it. Thanks so much for coming by. May the season smile upon you.

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  4. Haven't been feeling very merry or happy or joyful of late but enjoyed reading all of these fascinating origins anyway. Happy, happy and merry, merry to you!

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    1. Hey Christine - thanks for coming by. Ellen & I have been thinking positive thoughts your way.

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