As we are between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, thought I might add some words used often during the holidays, and their origins.
Mirth - Both mirth and merry come from an Old English word
meaning “joy” or “pleasure.” These words are themselves derived from
an older German root meaning “short-lasting.” Thus, something merry
is short-lived—although the consequences may not be.
In the 17th century, the word “merry” could include decidedly
earthier connotations, such as a merry-bout of sexual intercourse.
Sometimes a merry-bout resulted in a “merry-begot,” an illegitimate
Merry - The word merry also gave us the merrythought, which
we now call the wishbone. The custom of pulling apart the wishbone
dates back at least to Roman times and may have evolved from the
Etruscan practice of alectryomancy, the practice of divining the
future using rooster clavicles. According to Roman legend, the
Etruscans selected the wishbone because its “V” shape resembled a
human groin, the repository of life. Thus, the wishbone was seen as
an appropriate way to unravel life’s mysteries.
In the 17th century, it was sometimes thought that whoever ended up
with the longer piece of the merrythought would marry first. Some
believed the person with the longer piece would get whatever wish he
chose. English settlers brought the practice with them to the New
World, and we still pull the wishbone apart today. The proper term
for the bone we pull apart is “furcula.” It comes from the Latin
furca, meaning “pitchfork.”
Fork - It is not particularly a holiday word, but used more
often during the holidays. Before becoming the word for what was
then a two-pronged utensil, the term was used in England to refer to
a forked instrument used by torturers. Although the fork seems like
an obvious tool, it was not used for eating until the eighth or
ninth century, and then only by the nobility in parts of what is now
the Middle East. Popular legend has it that Catherine dei Medici
brought the fork to France from Italy when she married King Henry I
of France in the 16th century. However, the use of the word to mean
a table fork came a hundred years earlier.
Beer and Ale - The word “beer,” stems from Latin bibere,
meaning “to drink.” The Germanic word for beer was aluth, from which
we get our English word “ale.” Ale also gave us the English word
“bridal,” because in the Middle Ages, ale was a noun that meant a
feast. A bride ale was literally a feast in honor of a marriage.
Sage - The herb sage is associated with Thanksgiving, but
historically, sage’s primary use has been medicinal. This is
reflected in its botanical name, Salvia officinalis. In Latin,
salvus meant “healthy,” a word that also gave us the English “safe.”
Sage has been used to treat inflamed gums, excessive perspiration,
memory loss, depression, sore throat, swollen sinuses, acne, toenail
fungus, hot flashes, and painful menstruation, among others. Because
sage is also used to combat diarrhea, gas, and bloating, it is the
perfect herb for a holiday that often results in overindulgence.
Tofurky - This relatively new holiday word makes many cringe.
It is a turkey substitute created in 2000 by Turtle Island Foods.
Tofurky is made from tofu, wheat gluten, oil, and “natural flavors,”
which include certain yeasts that lend Tofurky a “meaty” taste. Tofu
is fermented soy bean curd valued for its high protein content, as
well as its ability to absorb flavors from other foods. Tofu is
probably best enjoyed without thinking of the origins of the word,
literally “rotten beans,” which come from Chinese dou (“beans”) and
Christmas - This word comes from the Old English words
Cristes moesse, 'the mass or festival of Christ'. The first
celebration took place in Rome about the middle of the fourth
century. The exact date of the Nativity is not known, but even in
pre-Christian times the period from December 25 to January 6, now
known as "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was considered a special
time of year. The abbreviation Xmas, thought as sacrilegious by
some, is entirely appropriate. The letter X (chi) is the first
letter in the Greek word for Christ.
Reindeer - Did you know this word is actually redundant.
Rein is Scandinavian for 'reindeer', so reindeer translates to
'reindeer deer'. It came to English from Old Norse hreindyri.
Mistletoe is thought to be based on a German word for bird
excrement (mix) from the fact that the plant is propagated in it.
Some think it is derived from another German word (mash) which
refers to the stickiness of the berries. It is combined with an Old
English word (toe) meaning 'twig'. This shrub usually grows on
broad-leaved trees like apple, lime, and poplar.
Christmas Carol is a term which originally referred to a
non-religious ring dance accompanied by singing. Eventually it came
to mean a merry song with a tune that could be danced to. The
Italian friars who lived with St. Francis of Assisi were the first
to compose these songs in the early 1400s. Since the nineteenth
century, carols have been sung in place of hymns in many churches on
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Saint Nicholas was not only wealthy but modest, and he
liked to help people in need without drawing attention to himself.
Poor families would often find a gold piece or well-filled purse
without knowing where it had come from. His American successor,
Santa Claus, carried on the tradition.
Poinsettias have been a symbol of Christmas in the United
States since the 1820s when it was first shipped to North America by
Joel Poinsett, the American minister to Mexico.
Wassail - It comes from the Middle English waes haeil, which
means 'be in good health' or 'be fortunate'. Wassailing was the Old
English custom of toasting the holiday and each other's health.
Wassail is also the name of the spiced apple beverage used in such
toasting and has been drunk since around 1300.