A Christmas Game: The Twelve Days of Christmas

It’s the holiday season and this year we’re having a look at the etymologies of all the gifts in the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

You might see circulated on the internet the interpretation of this song as a Catholic catechism, with the gifts supposedly representing articles of faith cleverly encoded so that Catholics in England could keep their religion a secret in a Protestant England that was hostile toward Catholics at that time. This notion has been basically debunked (you can read about this on Snopes), but looking at the gifts from an etymological perspective can cast some light on Christmas and some other historical contexts, so that’s what I set out to do. As the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes reports, the song seems to have its origin as a forfeit game, as attested by 19th century folklorist Lady Gomme. Each participant would have to repeat the ever growing list of gifts without making a mistake or have to pay a penalty. And it’s this idea of the Christmas game that inspired the light-hearted and (hopefully) humorous video.

Ronald Hutton (see show notes page) writes of the medieval and early modern association of the twelve days of Christmas as a time of feasting and celebration, after the more austere period of advent until Christmas eve. The wealthy manorial lords were expected to entertain the community. The 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight actually describes a fifteen day Christmas celebration in King Arthur’s court, which included feasting, carols, and games. And it’s a game of exchange of blows that the Green Knight offers when he comes to Arthur’s court, as he describes it a “Crystemas gomen”, which is followed up a year later for Gawain at the castle Hautdesert with an exchange of winnings game. (I summarize the whole story in the video “A Detective Story” if you want to hear more.) The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is now so well known that it’s not as challenging as it perhaps once was, and so based on the etymologies I discussed in the video, I wrote a new set of lyrics, which you can read (and print out for yourself), or listen to our attempt to sing in the video below. If you’re interested you can also try to sing it yourself to just the instrumental track in a video here, and see if you can do a better job than we managed, if you accept the challenge of my “Crystemas gomen”. As you can tell from our attempt, it’s quite difficult! And for comparison’s sake we’ve also put up a version with the original lyrics here — much easier to sing!

So as always, there are some additional etymologies and connections that I didn’t have time for in the video. First of all the number twelve, which is sometimes said to be evidence that a base twelve numbering system rather than a decimal one was used at an earlier period, since eleven and twelve don’t follow the expected pattern of “oneteen” and “twoteen”. This isn’t exactly true. Eleven and twelve, which are endleofan and twelf in Old English, seem to literally mean “one left over” (after a count of ten) and “two left over” (after a count of ten). The “-leofan” and “-lf” parts of the words are related to the word “left”. The “teen” of thirteen and so forth means “ten”, so three plus ten. So two different was of reckoning from ten. Now why there’s a shift in reckoning between 12 and 13 is unknown, but it is possible that it might be an indirect result of counting in twelves. However, the better evidence of counting in twelves is the fact that “hundred” used to refer to 120, but after the influence of Roman counting with centum (cognate with English 'hundred') meaning 100, it became distinguished as the long hundred or hundtwelftig in Old English.

I gave the etymology of partridge, but not pear, which comes from Latin pirum, and is believed to have been borrowed into Latin from some unknown source. The possible reinterpreting of the French perdrix as “pear tree”, as well as other mishearings such as “calling bird” for “colly bird” are know in linguistic circles as an eggcorn, the reinterpretation of an unfamiliar word as one that is technically incorrect but nonetheless logical. As for the word "feisty", originally applied to farting dogs, it transfers over to humans in the sense of quarrelsome or spirited. As Etymonline reports of the earlier sense, a 1811 slang dictionary has the definition “a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” And it’s interesting to note that feisty is more often used in reference to women, and specifically of old women, it seems. I suppose the equivalent for a man might be “old fart”. But perhaps consider the etymology before using the word to describe someone!

Moving on to the turtledoves and the circumcision of Christ, one of the reasons it was held to be so important in the Christian calendar was that it was the first time Jesus’s blood was shed, and therefore prefigured the Crucifixion, which is the salvation of humanity by undoing the original sin of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden — a sort of second chance. This association is relevant to that medieval poem I mentioned earlier, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story is set one week after Christmas, hence around New Year and the Festival of the Circumcision, and in the climax of the poem Gawain gets a small cut as a mark of his sin, after which he is figuratively resurrected (just as the Green Knight, one year earlier, had been actually resurrected after having his head cut off), and Gawain gets a second chance to try and do better. And we still have this idea at New Year of the New Year’s resolution, in which you promise to try to do better in the coming year. So when you’re making your New Year’s resolution, maybe spare a thought for Jesus’s foreskin?

As for the French hens, I should clarify that the feminine form derived from the masculine *hano probably sometime in Proto-Germanic period (since the word referring to the bird seems to exist only in Germanic languages, though the root goes back to Proto-European word meaning “to sing”). Old English had both the masculine and feminine forms but for some reason the masculine doesn’t make it into modern English, being replaced by “cock” or “rooster”. That "Frank" root which gives us "French" and came to mean “free” also gives us the word “franchise” which originally meant “freedom” and by extension its modern legal sense, and the term "franking privilege", referring to government officials getting free postage. And the term "French nut" to mean "foreign or rare nut", referring to the walnut, mirrors the word "walnut" itself, which is etymologically "Welsh nut". The words "Welsh" and "Wales" come from Old English wealh which mean “foreign”, so it’s what the Anglo-Saxons called the Welsh, who refer to their own country not as Wales but as Cymru. So "walnut" also mean “foreign nut”.

The word "ledger" (connected to the geese a’laying), whose financial sense may have been driven by the advent of double-entry bookkeeping, has an interesting link to one of my previous videos. Double-entry bookkeeping was first written about in a treatise by one Luca Pacioli, a Renaissance mathematician also known for developing probabilistic mathematics. Pacioli also wrote a book about games (arising from his interest in probabilities) which he dedicated to Isabella d’Este (whose portrait Pacioli’s pal Leonardo da Vinci refused to paint). It was Isabella’s brother brother Ippolito who brought back the coach from Hungary after his aunt, who married the king of Hungary, got him a church position there for a while, a story which you can learn more about in my video “Coach”.

Also in a previous video, “Loaf”, I covered the etymologies of the words "lord" and "lady" in more detail. The other word “loaf” meaning “to spend time idly” is also related to the word for the type of shoe, loafers, so I wonder if those loafing lords are leaping in loafers! The Germanic root *hlaupan meaning “leap” that gives us “to loaf” and "loafers", also gives us the first part of the name for the bird lapwing, which at least one Latin dictionary suggests, perhaps erroneously, might be the bird referred to by Latin perdix, (usually translated as "partridge"), perhaps because both birds are ground-nesters, so that's a possible link back to the partridge in a pear tree. The lapwing, by the way, has nothing to do with either laps or wings, etymologically speaking; the second element is actually related to "wink", so a "leap-wink bird".

As for the word "trump", related to the drummers drumming, I'm sure you’ll probably be unable to connect Donald Trump and farting in your mind, but let's all hope he doesn’t triumph, which is the etymology of the other word "trump", as in card games.

As a final Christmas present, I’m embedding below last year’s Christmas video “Yule” if you haven’t seen it, and you can also listen to the latest episode of our podcast, in which we discuss the Yule video. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you in the New Year!