Turkey, Santa Claus, the Nativity, satsumas, tangerines and a partridge in a pear tree…it may be time to break out the Xmas crackers, but the festive season isn’t always what you’d expect as the author of a new book on the origins of words, Mark Forsyth, reveals
CHRISTMAS is a time when far-scattered families come together, gather around a roaring fire and a dead turkey, and scoff satsumas. Usually, they never ask themselves why they are eating a country in Asia Minor followed by an ancient province of Japan, or even how the poker that rests by the roaring fire could be used to make proper Orkney egg nogg. But Christmas words are a fascinating business that take you from ancient Persia to modern day MTV; on, in the case of Xmas, straight back to ancient Greece.
1 XMAS OR CHRISTMAS
Many people believe that Christmas is the traditional spelling and that Xmas is a modern abomination. In fact, it’s the other way around. Xmas is first recorded in 1100AD, narrowly beating Christmas as the original spelling in the English language (well, to be exact, the spellings were Xpes mæsse and Cristes mæsse, but let’s not split hairs). X meaning Christ is the truly ancient way of writing Christ, because it goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, in whose alphabet the word was spelled XPIST. There used to be lots more Xs about. Medieval Xtians would get Xrenned when they converted to Xtianity. But now Xmas is the solitary survivor. So next time you see some rubbishy marketing campaign for Xtraordinary Xmas Deals!, they’re actually referring all the way back to an alphabet that Jesus would have recognised.
2 CHRISTMAS EVE
Eve is simply a shortening of evening. This may seem silly to us, because Christmas Eve is the evening before Christmas. But that’s not how a medieval churchman would have looked at it. In the old church’s system of hours a day started not at midnight, nor at dawn, but at dusk. So Christmas started at sunset on the 24th of December. That’s why the Germans still call Christmas Weihnachten, or Holy Night. It also means that by the old reckoning, Scotland gets Christmas before England does, so the children of John O’ Groats can start unwrapping their presents about ten minutes before the little whippersnappers south of the Tweed.
Early explorers in the Americas saw flocks of turkeys singing in the magnolia forests, for the turkey is native to America. But it’s named after a country in Asia Minor – why?
The helmeted guinea fowl is an ugly – albeit delicious – Madagascan bird with a big bony knob on its head. It was Turkish traders – or Turkey merchants – who imported them to Europe, and their birds therefore got called turkeys.
But those aren’t turkeys that we eat at Christmas with bread sauce and relatives. That bird is Meleagris gallopavo.
It was Spanish conquistadors who brought Meleagris gallopavo to Europe. Though a different species from the helmeted guinea fowl, the two birds look surprisingly alike.
People got confused. The birds looked the same, tasted similar and both were new dishes brought from Somewhere Foreign. So the American bird got called turkey too.
Check your Advent Calendar. Does it start it start on 1 December? If it does you can probably take it back to the shop and angrily demand a refund. If the shopkeeper puts up any kind of fuss, point out to him that Advent has to include the four Sundays before Christmas, which means that this year it should have started on 27 November. It’s probably best to eat all the chocolates before claiming your money back on Boxing Day. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas this year, but it isn’t always, as technically it’s the first weekday after the 25th. Once upon a time, people used to put coins into a box all year, which was broken open on Boxing Day and distributed among the servants and ragamuffins who turned up for work on Monday.
5 SATSUMAS, TANGERINES AND WALNUTS
Christmas is the season when all sorts of strange fruits appear in the shops with fantastic names like Satsuma. But beware! Was your Satsuma really grown in the Satsuma region of Southern Japan? If it wasn’t you should at least be able to negotiate a discount. Satsuma, like Frankfurter, is a place-name food. Just as somebody from Hamburg is a Hamburger, so somebody from Tangiers is a Tangerine. The same thing almost applies to walnuts, which are practically Welsh. Walnuts were brought to England from France and were therefore called foreign nuts, and the Old English for “foreign” was Wal. That’s also the reason that the Old English called the foreign land in the West Wales.
6 5 GOLD RINGS
The price of gold is at an all-time high and you can’t walk down a high street without somebody attempting to purchase your fillings. So it ought to come as a relief to cash-strapped true lovers that the “five gold rings” in the song don’t contain any actual gold at all. If you look at the first week’s presents you’ll see a pattern: one partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six parturiating geese, and seven swimming swans. They’re all birds, including the gold rings.
Given the context, it’s pretty certain that the five gold rings are ring-necked pheasants. You see the female has lovely golden plumage at this time of year. This is good news for true lovers as gold rings are pricey, but you can obtain a pheasant for less than a fiver.
While we’re on the subject of the song, it’s probably not a pear tree either. Our word partridge comes from the French pertis, which means it was probably something like “a partridge or a pertis”. Pertis comes ultimately from the Ancient Greek perdix, which meant “farter”, because when a partridge is flying the beat of the wings sounds like… well… a fart.
7 SANTA CLAUS
Santa Claus is a shortening of Saint Nicholas (270-343AD), who was famous for his generosity and present giving. According to legend he gave three poor young girls a purse of money each on the day they came of age. However, it’s not usually mentioned that the reason he did this was that they were going to have to turn to prostitution the next day, which puts most people’s Boxing Day woes into perspective.
8 THE MAGI
“We three kings of orient are…” runs the song, and the song is absolutely incorrect. First of all, they’re often called three kings, which they weren’t. Wise men might do, but it’s best to stick to Magi. The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel is magos, which in turn comes from the Persian magush. The magush were the priestly tribe of the Medians who were famous for their knowledge of all sorts of strange mysteries like astrology. Indeed, the Greeks called their knowledge magike, and that’s where we get the word magic from. So they weren’t kings and, what’s more, there weren’t three of them. The Bible only says that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but how many Magi that makes is anybody’s guess.
9 EGG NOGG
We all know what eggs are, but that mysterious nogg takes some explaining. The best guess as to where the word nogg came from is found in the Orkneys and Shetland islands where they used to nugg their ale. Making nugged ale is easy. You put a poker in the fire until it’s red hot, and then you poke it into your flask of beer. This not only warms the ale up, but gives it a quite peculiar flavour. Given the weather that we’ve been having lately, I feel that nugging is probably due for a revival.
Crimble is the only word that was invented by the Beatles. Fans of the band know all about nonsense words like “goo goo g’joob” in I Am The Walrus, but that never made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s only the immensely obscure Beatles Fan Club Recording of 1963 that got John Lennon in the dictionary when he says: “Garry Crimble to you, Garry Crimble to you, Garry Bable, Dear Christmas, Happy Birthday, me too!” Whatever that means.
Crimble was once a cool word, but now it has lost some of its chic. There was already an unrelated verb in English – to crimble, which meant cringe. And I’m afraid that these days “crimble” makes me crimble.
11 THE CRIB
Crib was once just a word for a basket, until it got appropriated by Jesus and thieves, who are still in a tug of war over the word today. If you put hay in the basket then you have a manger (from the French manger) which is useful for feeding animals and getting Messiahs to sleep. However, if you’re a pickpocket a basket is simply a useful place to conceal stolen goods. A purloined wallet can be hidden away, or cribbed, in a split second of prestidigitation. That’s why you can still crib, or steal, somebody else’s ideas. Also, when a Victorian criminal was being hunted by the police he would hide himself at home as though he were the stolen good. Thus his home became his crib, a slang term that survives to this day in the fascinating televisual tragedy that is MTV Cribs.
12 NATIVITIES AND NATALIES
Nativity is Latin for birth. That’s why you’re a native to the place in which you are born. The Romans called Christmas the Dies Natalis, and then the particularly pious Romans started calling their daughters Natalis and we still have the name Natalie. So if Natalie is in the nativity play in her native town, that’s the same Latin word three times over. It also means that your Boxing Day hangover can be written off as postnatal depression.
AND FINALLY... to have a proper pedant’s Christmas, you have to point out that the Bible never says a word about Jesus being born in December. It does give one clue to His birthday though: the shepherds were abiding in the fields at night, something that they only did during the summer when it wasn’t freezing cold.
• Mark Forsyth is a writer, journalist and blogger. He started The Inky Fool blog in 2009 and now writes a post almost every day. The blog has received worldwide attention and enjoys an average of 4,000 hits per week. His first book, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language explores the secret meanings of words, from “Walthamstow” to “zyxt”. It was published last month and was this week’s BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week