Festive linguistics: The language of Christmas

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With Christmas around the corner, we thought we would engage in some festive linguistics and investigate the roots of some of our favourite Christmas words.

Bauble – The word ‘bauble’ may refer to the combination of two words: the Old French ‘baubel’ (a child’s toy) and the Old English ‘babyll’ (something that swings). In Old English, it was especially used to designate the mock symbol of office carried by a court jester, which is how it came to designate anything trivial, frivolous or worthless. It has been used to describe the Christmas tree ornament since 1847.

Gingerbread – Where did the bread come from in gingerbread? The word originates in the Latin ‘gingimbratus’ (preserved ginger), from ‘gingiber’ (ginger). It is thought that due to the intrusive ‘r’, the third syllable was confused with bread, which is how English acquired the term ‘gingerbread’ – through misunderstanding. Did you know that ‘gingerbread’ also refers to a flamboyant Victorian-era architectural style?

Mistletoe – The etymology of the word behind the lovely tradition of kissing under a mistletoe may surprise you, as it’s not quite as lovely and heart-warming as the tradition itself. The word comes from the Old English ‘misteltan’, composed of ‘mistel’ (dung) and ‘tan’ (twigs) – basically, “dung on a twig”. The plant was so named because it was found that mistletoe is fertilised by bird droppings. What’s more, most types of mistletoe are actually parasites; they cannot sustain themselves only on photosynthesis, so they seep nutrients from the tree that they’re growing on.

Reindeer – The first part, ‘rein’, stems from the Old Norse ‘hreinn’, which designates the animal itself and has Indo-European roots that refer to “the horned animal”. ‘Deer’ is likely to come from the Old Norse ‘dýr’, meaning animal. Speaking of reindeer, here’s a linguistic curiosity: The Finnish language has a word for the distance that a reindeer can travel before needing to urinate – ‘poronkusema’, literally ‘reindeer’s piss’.

Tinsel – Here’s some enlightening etymology: the term comes from the Old French ‘estincelle’ (a spark) or ‘estinceler’ (to sparkle), rooted in the Latin ‘scintilla’, which also means spark. Before the 16th century, tinsel was used to decorate statues. It was subsequently used as a Christmas tree ornament to complement the flickering of candles on the tree.

The Language Room team wishes everyone a very warm and cheerful Christmas.