Rockin’ Around Etymology

Reading time: 10 minutes

Ho ho ho! A joyful Yuletide to you, language lover!

Now here’s something new for the blog: my offering for this December and for Christmas 2021 is an etymological round — a journey of linguistic connections that begins and starts with the same word.

This is not my original idea, I should say. For one example, it’s something that Mark Forsyth admirably achieved in his book, The Etymologicon. It’s not a task that I’ve seen attempted often though, and I can understand why; making word connections is a piece of cake, but linking them together towards a given finish line has been quite a creative challenge.

Like the self-nomming ouroboros, these connections form a circular route through (mostly English) words, with each one more or less sticking to a festive theme. I hope the journey and all the little snippets of word info will entertain, interest, maybe even amuse you!

Seeing as it is, as they say, the most wonderful time of the year, the word that begins and ends this voyage of vocabulary is Christmas.

So, here goes!

Christmas is a word that’s been around since Old English times. Although Yule (also from Old English) and French Noël have offered some competition, Christmas has remained the pretty standard word for the holiday. The word is a compound; it gets its name from Christ, the eponymous birthday boy, and mass, the important Christian service of worship.

Christmas mass in the Très Riches Heures, c. 1415

Mass itself has a curious etymology. The most widely accepted theory is that the word comes from the final phrase spoken by the priest in the traditional Latin mass: “ite, missa est“, roughly translatable to ‘go, it is the dismissal‘ or more naturally ‘go, the mass has ended‘. It’s a funny thought that a religious service, which contains lots of important words, should get its popular name from a banal word in its concluding stages. It’s as if football matches were called stoppages!

Regardless of the puzzles of why the word mass came to be, it can at least be securely traced back to the Latin verb mittere, meaning ‘to send’. English gets lots of words from mittere — it’s there in mission, transmit, dismiss, missile and message, all of which have connections to sending things.

One famous message is the annual Christmas speech by the British monarch. What could be more Christmassy than the Queen’s Christmas message? Well, probably quite a lot if you aren’t British. Or not from a country in the Commonwealth. Or a republican. Or not interested in watching it. Anyway, it’s a fixture of Christmas Day and has been so since 1932.

One fact about the royal message that you may know is that the Queen doesn’t wish people a merry Christmas, but always a happy one. Happiness, not merriness, may be more in keeping with what Her Majesty wishes for her audience, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t prefer happy over merry. It’s a matter of historical accident which positive adjective has made it into a particular festive benediction; some languages have settled on adjectives that lean more towards ‘merry’, others more towards ‘happy’, as in Portuguese feliz Natal! or Spanish feliz Navidad!

You might recognise Spanish Navidad as a sister word of English nativity. Both come from Latin nātīvitās, which has as its root nāt-, meaning ‘birth’ and things related to it. This root is behind other English words like native, prenatal, pregnant and nascent. The Latin verb nāscī ‘to be born’ appears in the refrain of the carol Gaudete, which remains a particular favourite of mine.

Gaudete, gaudete!
Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine,

‘Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is (or was) born of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!’

The oft-repeated imperative in the lyrics, gaudete, is a form of the Latin verb gaudēre ‘to rejoice’. The Latin noun to match the verb is gaudium ‘delight’, from which English gets the word joy.

Joy is a pretty Christmassy word — it’s what we aim for and what we wish upon others. The French for instance wish each other a joyeux Noël! and it’s there in the title of the carol Joy to the World, written in 1719 and particularly popular in the USA.

However, if we went back to the Old English era, singing about the joy of the ‘world‘ would seem a bit odd, as Old English weorold had a less physical, more metaphorical meaning. Weorold primarily referred to the sum of temporal things and the general concept of human existence. If you wanted to rewrite Joy to the World for an Old English-speaking audience, I’d start with Blīþs þǣm Middanġearde, although it’s not very catchy.

The old metaphorical meaning of weorold arises from its component parts: it’s a compound of the word wer ‘man’ (whence also werewolf) and a word for ‘age’ that shares an origin with the modern adjective old.

Many Christmas things are old. There are old traditions, old songs and Old Saint Nick, and also Old Christmas, a name for those alternative dates of Christmas in early January (either the 6th or the 7th). Various Christian groups celebrate Christmas in January, such as Russian Orthodox believers, and the different date is due to the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

In western Europe, where the Gregorian calendar holds sway (with one exception being the Scottish island of Foula!), the 6th of January is instead the date of the holiday of Epiphany. This commemorates the visit of the Magi. This term goes back to Ancient Greek Mágos, the origin of the word magic, and these intriguing characters famously brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense is another compound word, comprised of Latin francus and incensum. This is not frank as in ‘honest’ but more like ‘pure’. Incense meanwhile derives from Latin verb incendere ‘to burn’, also the source of incendiary.

Incendere shares a root with candēre ‘to shine’, and it’s from candēre that English gets candid, candidate, chandelier and candle. Candles are, I’d say, very Christmassy things, especially advent candles.

Advent, from Latin adventus, is all about arrival — in particular, the coming of Christ into the world. The basic verb is venīre ‘to come’, which you might know as the first word in Caesar’s famous phrase “vēnī vīdī vīcī“.

Adventus not only can be translated to ‘coming’, but through venīre is actually related to English’s inherited verb come. Granted, they don’t look much alike, but the regular sound correspondences between English and Latin are there (comment below if you’d like to know more?). It’s appropriate therefore that carols sung during Advent include the word come, like O come, all ye faithful. Likewise, as the 1934 song tells us, another person who is coming during this time of year, specifically to town, is Santa Claus.

Santa Claus, as is pretty well known, comes from Dutch Sinterklaas, itself a rendition of Saint Nicholas’s name and title. The Dutch name entered English through the languages’ contact in North America; it is in a 1773 edition of Rivington’s Gazette, a New York newspaper, that we have our first source for “St. A Claus”.

Santa is by no means though the only Christmassy word that English gets from Dutch. Without Dutch, we wouldn’t have sledge and sleigh, and we wouldn’t even have cookies. For older merrymakers, Dutch has also given us the name of the spirit brandy, from its word brandewijn (literally ‘burnt wine’ and related to English brand).

Now brandy is one possible ingredient of eggnog, the popular winter drink. While the egg part of the word is obvious, nog is more opaque. It could be a linguistic contribution from East Anglia, my homeland, where nog is a type of strong, flavourful beer. In terms of its recipe, eggnog is pretty rich stuff; another usual component of eggnog is cream.

Cream has quite lofty, non-dairy origins as a word. It goes back, via Old French, to Latin chrisma, and from there further back to Ancient Greek khrîsma. English also has a doublet (a word with the same origin) of cream that maintains both the form and the meaning of the ancient originals more closely: chrism, which is an oily substance used for ceremonial anointing.

The Anointing of Jesus, in a copy of Augustine’s City of God, c. 1475-80.

Ancient Greek derived khrîsma from the verb khríein, which means ‘to smear’ or ‘to anoint’. If its speakers wanted to use this verb as an adjective, to refer to an anointed something or someone, the word would be (you guessed it!) khristós. This became the epithet of Jesus of Nazareth, since it is a fitting translation of the Hebrew word mašiaḥ (hence, messiah).

Without Khristós, there would be no Christ to form the compound Christmaset voilà! This brings us safely back to the word with which this journey began.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little round route through some festive vocabulary! I certainly enjoyed putting it together.

If you celebrate it, I wish you a delightful Christmas season. If you don’t, I wish you a December no less lovely.


Etymologies all checked on Images from Wikimedia Commons, except for the homage to Norfolk’s finest, Alan Partridge, from here.

8 thoughts on “Rockin’ Around Etymology

  1. What an enjoyable way to begin my holiday week . . . playful, informative and a truly lovely piece of writing. Thanks for the time and thought that went in to crafting it. I hope your Christmas is Hppy and Bright.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is such a delightful and kind thing to say! Thank you, Mark! Likewise, I wish a wonderful Christmas to you and yours.


  2. “ite, missa est” may also relate to the fact that the Holy Communion was sent (just after the end of the proper “mass”) to (elder and sick) people unable to attend the Supper (missa est coena): “You can go now, we sent it already”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mildly NSFW & Spoiler alert…

    In an interesting case of semantic shift, gaudere – which evolved into gozar in Spanish & Portuguese – has taken on a specific sense of “joy” in the latter.

    In modern Portuguese, the joy expressed by gozar is the carnal one – specifically achieving orgasm, both in the sense of the pleasure response, as well as in the male ejaculatory sense.

    Sorry for the TMI

    Liked by 1 person

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