The Origins of 13 Christmas Words
Most people have heard that Christmas is literally the “Christ Mass” of the Christian church, and that Santa Claus takes his name from a corruption of “Saint Nicholas,” the 4th century figure whose fondness for secretly handing out gifts apparently inspired the traditional image of Father Christmas. But what about all of the other festive words that crop up at this time of year? From worthless trinkets to misnamed chickens, here are the histories and etymologies of 12 Christmassy words.
Bauble derives from beaubelet, an old French word for a child’s toy or plaything, and dates back as far as the 14th century in English (if not earlier) when it originally referred to any showy but ultimately valueless ornament. In the years that followed, however, bauble also came to be used for the baton carried by court jesters (who were nicknamed bauble-bearers in Tudor England) and foolish people; to give the bauble meant to make fun of someone in 17th century English.
The earliest references to Christmas carols date back to Tudor England, but before then the word carol could be used to refer to any joyous or celebratory song, bands or choruses of singers or musicians, birdsong or the chorus of songbirds at dawn, or to a particular type of circular folk dance or piece of music written to accompany a ring-dance. Whatever its earliest meaning might have been, carol was borrowed into English from French in the early Middle Ages and can probably be traced back to an ancient Latin or Greek word for a flute-player, choraules.
Those chestnuts roasting on an open fire are actually Castanea nuts, named for the ancient region of Castana in central Greece from where they might once have been imported into the rest of Europe. Just like Brazil nuts, however, it might actually be the case that the region of Castana took its name from chestnut trees that grew there, not the other way around—in which case the name chestnut might instead derive from some ancient and long-lost name for the chestnut tree itself.
The nog of eggnog is an old 17th century word for strong beer, and in particular an ale or beer once brewed in Norfolk in the east of England. Before then, however, no one is entirely sure where the name nog originates, although one plausible explanation is that it comes from an even older Scots word, nugg, for beer warmed by having a red-hot poker placed into it. If so, then your Christmas eggnog can probably be traced back to an old Norwegian word, knagg, for a metal peg or spur.
You’ll no doubt have heard the word, but you might not know the meaning—frankincense is actually a type of fragrant resin, obtained from the sap of the frankincense tree, which has long been used to make incense; the frank– of frankincense is an old French word essentially meaning “high quality.”
Myrrh is another much-prized and highly fragrant resin or oil obtained from the sap of the myrrh tree. Its name comes from an Arabic word meaning “bitter.”
In Old English, a gift was specifically a wedding dowry, but by the early Middle Ages, its meaning had broadened to mean simply something given freely from one person to another. It ultimately derives from some ancient Germanic word root meaning something like “give” or “bestow”—which is also the origin of the not-so-festive German word gift, meaning “poison.”
The –toe of mistletoe is an Old English word for “twig,” but the mistle– part is much more puzzling. Originally, the mistletoe plant was just called mistel, which in Old English was also used as a word for birdlime, a sticky substance pasted onto the branches of trees to trap birds. How these two meanings came together in mistletoe is unclear, but one idea is that, because birds would eat mistletoe berries and then poop out the seeds elsewhere (with their poop acting as a fertilizer), mistel might originally have meant bird droppings, in the related sense of a sticky, unpleasant substance. Kissing under the poop-twig suddenly doesn’t seem quite so romantic.
Poinsettias are the large, bright red “flowers” (the red parts are actually leaves) popular at Christmas that are native to Mexico and parts of Central America. They’re named after Joel Robert Poinsett, a former congressman and diplomat, who is credited with introducing the plant to the United States in the early 1800s.
He might be the most famous of Santa’s reindeer, but the name Rudolph actually means “famous wolf,” and would once have been an epithet bestowed on the fiercest or most audacious of warriors. The rein– of reindeer, incidentally, is an old Germanic word meaning “horn.”
Though it had several earlier and different uses in the 1300s and 1400s, beginning in the early 1500s, tinsel was the name of an iridescent fabric interwoven with gold- or silver-colored thread that took its name from a French word, étincelle, meaning “sparkle” or “spark.” Tinsel as we know it today dates from the late 1500s, and took its name from the sparkling silvery or golden threads that made tinsel fabric so shiny.
The first birds ever known as turkeys in English were African guinea fowl, which were so-named as they were imported to Europe dinner tables via Turkey. When the first Europeans came across wild turkeys in North America in the early 1500s, however, they wrongly assumed that they were relatives of the guinea fowl they knew from back home, and so they too came to be known as turkeys.
English isn’t the only language to have geographically misnamed the turkey: In French it is called dinde (from poule d’inde, or “Indian chicken”); in Portuguese it is the peru (because the birds were mistakenly thought to come from South America); and in Malaysia it is called the ayam belanda or “Dutch chicken” (because the birds were originally introduced by Dutch settlers).
Yule derives from an Old Norse word, jól, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was once the name of a 12-day pagan festival. This was borrowed into Old English as gol or geol as far back as the 8th century, and was originally used both as another name for December (which was called ǽrra geóla, or “before Yule”) and January (which was æftera geóla, or “after Yule”).
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.