Thursday, December 8, 2016

Yule-ish words

Yule-ish words

As we head into the holiday season, here are a few Yule-related etymologies.

The word yule showed up in Old English from Old Norse long before anyone was writing down English or Norse. Yule originally referred to a two-month spate of Pre-Christian winter festivities some might refer to as heathen or pagan. Interestingly, nobody’s sure where the Old Norse got the word yule, but we do know it’s related to another winter-associated word, jolly.

The word egg-nog appeared in American English in the 1770s, a combination of egg & nog, the latter showing up in the 1690s & referring initially to a strong, old beer brewed in Norfolk. Then there is egg. The chicken-duck-or-goose sort of egg first entered the language in the mid-1300s from an Old Norse word that probably referred to birds &/or bird eggs. However, earlier than that, back in the 1200s, the Old Norse verb, egg, entered the English language, meaning to goad or incite. This fact poses the question of whether egg-nog was originally more about whipping eggs into beer or goading one’s compatriots into drinking more.

When the word wreath came to Old English it originally translated to that which is wound around. Wreath has some intriguing linguistic brethren: an Old High German word meaning twisted, a Frisian & an Old Norse word meaning angry, & a Dutch word meaning rough, harsh & cruel. All these came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning to twist or bend. It wasn’t until the 1560s that wreath meant a garland of flowers or greenery.

Next week we’ll explore a few more yule-related words, but in the meantime, I’m hoping you’ll have something to say in the comments section about these ones.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster,, the OED, &


  1. I always thought there was something pagan about the expression "Merry Christmas" (as opposed to "Happy Christmas" which is what they say in present day Britain) It may be that Yule was when people were jolly (yuley) which means "merry" (perhaps intoxicated) rather than the more sedate "happy." So every time people say "Merry Christmas" they're really harking back to Pagan roots. :-) Have a Yuley Holiday, Mr. Monger!

  2. Thanks so much Anne, & may you not be nagged by anyone this season!