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!

The Many Faces of the Jack-o'-Lantern

In honour of Halloween, this week's spooky etymology is Jack-o'-Lantern:

The underlying point of all this is a demonstration of how folk traditions develop. Many of the popular accounts of the history of Halloween that you may come across on the internet will claim that the "true" origin of Halloween lies in the Celtic Samhain or in Roman rituals, but looking for any one true origin misses the point of how folk traditions work. There is no one origin with a direct line to present day, but a confused mishmash of various traditions, including Celtic, Roman, and Christian. Indeed, any one such claim may be dubious, but looking at general patterns and possible influences is ultimately more interesting and revealing.

What lies at the heart of this story is the intersection of the jack-o'-lantern/will-o'-the-wisp bog light phenomenon and the carved vegetable lantern tradition, which may have separate origins but come together under the name Jack-o'-Lantern. The Stingy Jack story connected to the carved lantern may well be a later rationalization of an already existing tradition, but as is the case with folktales there are many variants and versions. William Wells Newell (see the show notes or online here) collates many of these variants. There are numerous different tricks that the hero of the story (who appears under different names) plays on the devil, such as trapping him in a magic chair or catching him in a bottle, but the core of the story is that the bog light is the soul of someone barred from both heaven and hell after tricking the devil (or sometimes death). The Dublin Penny Journal, in 1836 has another nice, and significantly different, retelling of the story. And as for the different but similar names for the bog lights, they include not only Jack-o'-lantern and Will-o'-the-wisp, but also Jenny-with-the-lantern, Kit with the candlestick, and Joan the wad (wad meaning bundle of straw or torch in Cornwall), along with many other names. And significantly another name is Hob-with-a-lantern or Hoberdy's Lantern, which brings us back to hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow. I could go on, but we'd be here forever; but speaking of Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, I discuss the various similar terms such as Puck, Puca, boggart, and bugbear in my previous video "Bug", if you want to follow up on that some more.

But getting back to Jack, the word/name, of course, has many and varied uses, with some 34 separate senses in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of interest here perhaps is the expression "to play the jack" meaning "to play the knave, do a mean trick". I already mentioned the word jack-tar meaning sailor in the video "Raincheck". By the way, the various mechanical senses, like a car jack or lifting jack or jackhammer, come from the idea that the machine is replacing the job of a manual laborer. And there's one extra detail about the word lantern, while we're at it: the spelling "lanthorn" crops up in the 16th to 19th century as a folk etymology due to the fact that horn could be used as a translucent cover in lanterns. Another instance of how folk  traditions work.

It was Sir James Frazer, whose influential book The Golden Bough I mentioned in an earlier video "A Detective Story", who seems to have first made the claim that the Celtic Samhain was a festival of the dead, and not just a seasonal harvest festival. It's not an illogical idea per se, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence to support it, and Ronald Hutton (whose book examining British seasonal festivals is listed in the show notes) sounds an important note of caution in this regard. The Christian Allhallowtide (and the Roman Lemuria which probably lies behind it, though specific links to Roman festivals or rituals, like the Pomona connection I make in the video, while plausible, also generally lack strong evidence) are festivals of the dead, and Samhain may have picked up those elements after contact with Christianity. Still, there must have been enough similarity and overlap for the merging to have occurred. There may also have been Germanic rituals at around that time of year that played into Halloween. Remember, though Pope Gregory III seems to have moved All Saint's Day to coincide with Samhain, this seems to have been put into practice in Germanic areas first. But then the Irish have a long history of disagreeing with Rome on the important dates of the Christian calendar, if you know anything about the Easter controversy and the Synod of Whitby, recounted in great detail by the Venerable Bede. And speaking of Bede, there is some slight evidence from him of the old Germanic associations of that time of year. He reports that the old Germanic names for the months that correspond to September, October, and November are Haligmonað "holy month" (for some pagan reason the details of which Bede was not aware), Winterfylleð "winter full moon" (presumably when the harvest comes in), and Blotmonað "blood or sacrifice month" (which Bede tells us is when excess livestock is slaughtered, an act that may have had ritual significance in Germanic paganism). And of course in Germanic paganism, the chief god Odin or Woden is among other things a god of death.

As a bit of a side note, though I mention only turnips and pumpkins in the video, there are other vegetables used for jack-o'-lanterns. For instance, the mangelworzel is particularly associated with the Somerset tradition of Punkie night. Here's a nice description with pictures of a contemporary Punkie night celebration.

One small clarification, Carl Linnaeus initially applied the name lemur to the otherwise unrelated slender loris, and only later to the Madagascar lemurs, but it's only with those that the name stuck. And speaking of Linnaeus, for those who are fans of tracking repeated references in a number of the videos, I've mentioned him a number of times, most recently in "Turkey" for the scientific naming of the turkey and the guinea fowl, and before that in "Fossil" for his development of the scientific binomial naming system itself, and Linnaeus also got a brief mention in the blog post for "Gimlet" for his naming of the cinchona plant, which produces quinine. And I've referred to the Puritan suppression of holidays a couple of times before, of Christmas in "Yule" and of Thanksgiving in "Turkey". So you can check those out if you want to know more.

There are interestingly a number of Canadian connections to this story, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that there was a great deal of immigration into Canada from Ireland and Scotland at just around the right period. (I should also note that one of my main scholarly sources for this video was written by a British-born scholar who moved to Canada, specifically Toronto -- Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (see show notes page) -- so this may have led to more of the specifically Canadian history being uncovered.) In any case, the first mention of the pumpkin as a Halloween tradition in North America seems to be in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper in 1866, and the first description of the guising or trick-or-treating tradition in its most common modern form of costumed small children asking for candy seems to be in a Kingston newspaper, in 1911. And though the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase “trick or treat” is in 1947 in an American source, Wikipedia lists a much earlier use of the term in 1927 once again in Canada, in an Alberta newspaper from 1927. If anyone has any more information on any of these possible Canadian connections, I'd love to hear it.

There's one last theme that I discuss only lightly in the video, that of boundaries. Samhain has been described as a liminal time, the boundary between summer and winter, and by extension it may have also been thought of as a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was open. As I mentioned in the video, one of the traditions of the will-o'-the-wisp is that they were the souls of those who moved boundary markers. The Roman Feralia rituals took place at the tombs located outside the city's sacred boundaries. And there may be a connection to another Roman festival Robigalia, which was meant to protect the grain crops by propitiating the god Robigus. In "Jack-o'-lanterns to Surveyors" (see the show notes), John R. Stilgoe discusses the Christian Rogationtide which develops from Robigalia, another example of the Christian repurposing of a pagan festival, which involved in part a procession around the boundary lines of properties. Though over time Rogationtide gradually turned from religious festival  to merrymaking and celebration, the tradition was exempt from the usual Puritan suppression of holidays because it served the practical purpose of keeping track of property boundaries., at least until the advent of more modern surveying techniques. Stilgoe places the belief that the will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern were the souls of those who moved boundary markers in this context, as a holdover from the religious belief in sacred boundaries. But in a strange sort of way it's come full circle again to boundaries, or rather the breaking of boundaries, as the modern popularity of Halloween, which is increasingly also an adult event, is due in part to the freedom it gives people to break boundaries by wearing costumes, sometimes quite transgressive ones. It provides the opportunity to safely cross over boundaries we don't always feel free to violate.

Talking Turkey

In honour (note the "ou" spelling) of Canadian Thanksgiving, this week's video looks at the word and the history of "turkey":

As often happens, I really over-researched for this one, so I have lots of extra material which didn't make it into the video. Some of this I'll put into this blog, but I think I have enough left over to make another Thanksgiving-related video next year. You can check out all the sources I drew on in the show notes page, but in particular I'd like to call attention to Dan Jurafsky's excellent book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. A version of his chapter on the turkey can be found on his blog here.

Of course Thanksgiving is all about the harvest. The word harvest comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp- which means "to gather or pluck", and the Latin form of this word, carpere, also eventually gives us the word ‘scarce’ which develops from the sense of being "plucked out" and therefore "rare", which reminds us of the scarcity of food in all of these settlements. That Latin word is perhaps most famous from the phrase carpe diem, usually translated as "seize the day", but the metaphor at work there is really a harvesting metaphor, like "harvest your crops when they're ripe before they go bad!" And this PIE root *kerp- goes even further back to the form *(s)ker- which means "to cut or shear", eventually giving us many English words, including "to share" from the idea of a division or portion — so sharing gets around scarcity, another important reminder of those early European settlements and the help they received from Native Americans. This root also leads to the Latin word caro/carnis "flesh or meat", as in the English word carnivore, which might again remind you of your Thanksgiving turkey.

On the subject of the harvest and agriculture, there is the story in Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, which I discussed in my video "The Story of Narrative". And of course there are many harvest festivals in many different cultures around the world. One worthy of note here, I suppose, is Lammas, the first harvest festival of the agricultural year in England, held August 1st when the wheat crop comes in, and involving bread specially made from that "first fruit" of the harvest. This harvest festival goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and the word Lammas comes from loaf-mass--remember the bread made from the wheat harvest--so this connects us with my video on the word "Loaf".

Another interesting English harvest festival is St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which falls on Nov. 11, and which picked up its elements of feasting and harvest celebration in addition to its religious elements after the fact, because of its timing. It’s connected with eating goose, though, not turkey, because of a story about its eponymous saint, Martin of Tours, who upon hearing that he was to be made a bishop and not wanting the job, tried to hide in a goose pen until the cackling of the geese gave him away. Geese are known as good alarm animals, as in the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy. And strangely enough guineafowl (yes them again) have a similar reputation, and even today are often kept with other barnyard poultry to warn of and even scare off birds of prey. But as for the roast goose, it also used to be the main Christmas fowl of choice in England, until it was replaced by the turkey.

Getting back to Thanksgiving itself, during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the first president to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday (in 1863), basing it off the New England traditional harvest thanksgiving festival and fixing it on the last Thursday in November — with the express goal of fostering national unity. The driving force behind Lincoln’s decision was the author Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential women’s magazine in the US—the Martha Stewart of her time, who was also trying very hard to create national unity. For instance, in her fiction she often wrote stories of romances between northerners and southerners, with nice happy endings. She is also notable for having written the famous children’s poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb", which has the distinction of being the first recording made by Thomas Edison on his new invention, the phonograph (an invention I previously covered in my video "Bug"). Hale may also be responsible for introducing several important Christmas traditions into America, when she reprinted a picture of Queen Victoria, whom she admired as the ideal role model for women, celebrating Christmas with her family around the Christmas tree, a custom that Victoria's husband Prince Albert had imported into England from his native Germany (a fact previously mentioned in my video "Yule"). And Hale’s idealized and romanticized literary portrayals of Thanksgiving feasts did much to catch the popular imagination. She was, after all, one of the biggest trend-setters of her day. So we have Hale to thank for the whole "holiday season", I suppose.

Because of Thanksgiving’s New England roots, and Lincoln’s Unionist intentions, it's not surprising that the holiday was not initially popular in the Southern states; they took a long time to embrace its celebration. There’s therefore no small irony in the fact that the debate about the ‘First Thanksgiving’ comes down mainly to a rivalry between Plymouth in the North and Jamestown in the South. Nonetheless, since Thanksgiving was only the second national holiday (after Independence Day) to be established, it has since gained strong patriotic significance.

When Hale cooked up the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday, she didn’t initially invoke that feast at the Plymouth colony. The story itself had been entirely forgotten, in fact, until 1841, and the discovery of a letter by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth leaders, written to attract more colonists, and  mentioning a feast involving some of the native population. On this evidence Alexander Young, who first published the letter, described the feast explicitly as “the first thanksgiving”, and the story eventually became attached to Hale’s efforts to promote the holiday. And the fact that the New Englanders had tended to serve turkey at their own harvest celebrations focussed attention on the mention of wild turkeys in the account from 1621 in the journal of William Bradford, another Plymouth leader, though he makes no specific mention of a feast.

But getting back to the turkey itself, in Turkish, the word for turkey is "hindi", or in other words a reference to India, and in a number of languages, such as Hindi and Portuguese, the word for turkey is essentially "Peruvian". Not that the turkey comes from Peru, but at least it's a closer guess than Turkey or India. I guess that the Portuguese, who are so implicated in this story, at least knew they weren't from Turkey. I suppose "Peruvian" would have been a better name for the guinea pig, though! In any case, there's a Wikipedia page with various words for turkey in different languages, if you want to look further -- the Japanese "seven-faced bird" is particularly evocative, and my friend Moti at The Ling Space mentioned in a comment on the video that it's because of its colourful face and feathers, since 7 is often the number used to denote 'numerous' in Japanese -- though why Tamil has "sky chicken" is beyond me. Also have a look at this fun article by Gretchen McCulloch for more discussion of the topic.

Of course the word turkey has gained a number of slang senses in modern English, such as a stupid person or an unsuccessful film, both due no doubt to the reputation of the turkey as a particularly stupid bird. Cold turkey, as in to quit cold turkey, probably develops from the idea of the turkey being served without preparation. And "to talk turkey" supposedly comes from a "humorous" story of a swindling colonial and native American dividing up the spoils of their hunting together, with the colonial "talking the turkey" for himself, and leaving the less desirable animals to his companion. Whether true or not, this story does I suppose reflect something of the nature of the relationship between the American colonists and the indigenous population.

And this finally brings us to the real implication of this whole story, and the modern globalized world we live in. Names referring to Turkey or India or Guinea and so forth were so cavalierly assigned to all these new commodities being shipped into Europe because no one really knew where they came from and because one exotic locale was as good as another. But have things really changed that much? Do you know where your food really comes from? If you're lucky, your supermarket might tell you the source of the fruits and vegetables. Prepackaged and processed foods might tell you where they were assembled, but not the source of each ingredient. And of course many of the foods we eat are now produced half a world away from their original source, as was the turkey almost immediately after the Spanish found it, since it was selectively bred into something new in Europe after being imported from Mesoamerica. And the initial impetus for all of this was the desire for foods and other commodities that weren't available locally, like those spices from India, and we're still obsessed with having year-round access to foods we couldn't have if it weren't for these trade networks (see the 100-mile diet movement for a counter to this). The 15th and 16th century Age of European Exploration kicked off a global food system that we still live with today, and for the most part, most of us don't really stop to think about any of this. So if you're sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner, have a look at the foods and drinks in front of you and ask yourself if you know not only where they were produced, but where they came from originally. The names might give you a clue, but as with the turkey it might not be that direct a trail.

My cuckoo Valentine

As something of a corrective to the usual saccharine Valentine's Day fare, this week's video is on the word "cuckold":

The idea for this video came from my noticing that the first recorded instance of the word 'cuckold' was in the Middle English poem "The Owl and the Nightingale". Every year at Valentine's Day, medievalists like myself bring up the fact that Geoffrey Chaucer in his "Parliament of Fowls" invented the connection between the eponymous saint and the celebration of romantic love, but I knew I wanted to do something a little different, more surprising, and most importantly counter to the usual sentimentality of the season. So once I had the connection between the two medieval bird debate poems and of course the interesting etymology of the word "cuckold" (and the fact that the cuckoo plays a significant role in Chaucer's poem), I knew I had my subject. I had also been aware of the possible cuckold's horns background to the bunny-ears-in-photographs meme, so it was just a question of doing a bit more research into the history of the cuckold horns. And that's when I came across the wonderful capon theory!

The best source for this is Graber and Richter's article "The Capon Theory of the Cuckold's Horns" (see the the show notes for full bibliographic info). Amazingly, this regrafting of the spur to the head seems to be biologically possible. Graber and Richter tell of a 1929 article in the Journal of Heredity in which A.W. Kozelka performs and reports on just this procedure. Unfortunately I haven't been able to track down the original 1929 article (or the photograph it included) but if anyone has access to this I'd love to hear more about it. There are 16th century Italian references to this procedure as well, but unfortunately that's as far back as the evidence goes. However, there is a much earlier ram's horn reference to cuckolding in the late Greek Artemidorus (2nd century), so this would suggest that the theory that it's just a sarcastic reference to animal horns and virility is the real origin, which later perhaps inspired the practice of regrafting the spurs of the capon. As for the Actaeon story, Claire McEachern discusses this and the renaissance context for cuckoldry in her article "Why Do Cuckolds Have Horns?" It's probably not the original source for the association between horns and cuckoldry, but is a renaissance rationalization, and McEachern interestingly argues that cuckold humour and the various associations are a kind of comic defusing of the anxieties over the Protestant theology of election. No, really!

The main source for research on gesture in general (including the sign of the horns and the V sign) is Desmond Morris, who has published widely on the topic. I've listed a few of his books in the show notes, along with a few links to excerpts online. And if you want to read more about the Chaucer/Valentine's Day date question, I've listed a few articles and links in show notes. Suffice it to say there has been a certain amount of discussion of the topic. And though you may sometimes see it claimed that Valentine's Day has its roots in the Roman festival Lupercalia, sadly it doesn't appear to be true. It really is all down to Chaucer.

By the way, we've made a shareable, customizable, somewhat cheeky Valentine's Day e-card with the Horny Cock on it, which you can find at: http://cardkarma.com/card/4XP -- feel free to share it in the spirit of Valentine's Day!

I mentioned that the "sumer" in "Sumer is icumen in" actually refers to spring. So says the excellent David Crystal as well (see the entry on "Cuckoo" in his book The Story of English in 100 Words, listed on the General Credits page). The term "spring" for the season in question isn't attested until 1547, with related terms appearing a little earlier: springing-time (1387), spring-time (1495), springing (1513), spring of the year (1530), spring tide (1530), spring of the leaf (1538). Before that the only other specific terms to refer to spring were references to Lent, part of the Church calendar, or forms of the Latin borrowing ver. Here's the relevant entries in the Historical Thesaurus if you want to look at more terms for spring.

For those keeping track, Oliver Cromwell was the repeat reference in this episode, last appearing in the Yule episode. Well, along with Chaucer and Shakespeare in the "Paddle Your Own Canoe" and "Loaf" episodes, I suppose.

I'd be interested to know how many people have heard the term "foolscap", and in particular if you knew it as the eggcorn "fullscap". When I was young I remember my teachers referring to long sheets of paper (legal?, A4?) as fullscap and short sheets of paper (smaller than letter size) as "halfscap". Please leave me a comment if you've heard of the word "halfscap". 

Finally, I'll leave you with another medieval cuckoo poem that I didn't mention in the video, the Old English cuckoo riddle, which revolves around brood parasitism. Here it is, first in Old English and then in a translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

Mec on þissum dagu     deadne ofgeafum
fæder ond modor;     ne wæs me feorh þa gen,
ealdor in innan.     Þa mec ongon,
welhold mege,     wedum þeccan,
heold ond freoþode,     hleosceorpe wrah
swa arlice     swa hire agen bearn,
oþþæt ic under sceate, ·     swa min gesceapu wæron
ungesibbum wearð     eacen gæste.
Mec seo friþemæg     fedde siþþan,
oþþæt ic aweox,     widdor meahte
siþas asettan.     Heo hæfde swæsra þy læs
suna ond dohtra,     þy heo swa dyde.

In former days my mother and father
forsook me for dead, for the fullness of life
was not yet within me. But another woman
graciously fitted me out in soft garments,
as kind to me as to her own children,
tended and took me under her wing;
until under shelter, unlike her kin,
I matured as a mighty bird (as was my fate).
My guardian then fed me until I could fly,
and could wander more widely on my
excursions; she had the less of her own
sons and daughters by what she did thus.

Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Wæs þu hal! This week we have a very special Christmas episode of The Endless Knot all about the word Yule:

The etymological key to everything I talk about in this video is the two possible sources for Germanic word (and festival) Yule. Yule might come from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to turn', in which case it's referring to the turn of the year that is the winter solstice, or from  a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to speak' and by extension 'to joke' or 'to play', by way of the sense of festivities and celebration. Together these sources highlight Yule as a time associated with fertility festivals and celebration, which are exactly the elements of the Germanic Yule that are now commonly associated with Christmas. These elements work well symbolically with the Christian story of the birth of Christ, of course, which also has the theme of the renewal of life. And indeed it was a very intentional decision to borrow from various pagan traditions and incorporate these elements into a Christian holiday. For instance, Pope Gregory the Great advised Augustine the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons, to adapt and adopt the Germanic customs and places of worship into the Christian tradition, rather than to try to simply suppress them. I also point out the possible etymological connection between Yule and jolly, as in the "Jolly old elf" of Clement Clark Moore's Twas the Night before Christmas (more properly A Visit from St Nicholas), and the fact that "elf" too is a Germanic word and pagan connection. You can learn more about the elf etymology in my earlier video on the word "Album":

I was reminded of another medieval literary connection here (in addition to Beowulf and the Norse stuff), in a Twitter conversation with my friend and colleague Damian (@IPFWMedieval), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is also set around Christmas and New Year's, and also draws on the imagery of the evergreen holly. In fact there are a number of parallels between Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the Green Knight lining up well with Grendel (and the Grinch). And similarly to Beowulf, the Old Norse sagas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features a strange supernatural being visiting the hall at Christmas and causing trouble. And evidently Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) was a student at Oxford University while JRR Tolkien, a notable scholar and translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf (as well as Lord of the Rings author), held the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Thanks for the extra connection, Damian! If you want to read more about the Grinch/Grendel link, there is at least one article published on the topic (to my knowledge), Robert L. Schichler's "Understanding the Outsider: Grendel, Geisel, and the Grinch". You can find the full bibliographic info for this article, along with other useful sources on the various topics in this video, on the show notes page. Though I couldn't work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into this "Yule" video, I have covered the poem in some detail in an earlier video called "A Detective Story":

One last programming note: I'll be taking a bit of time off over the holidays, and regular video releases will resume on January 13th, 2015. So in the meantime, Happy Yule! And as a final Christmas present, here are a number of other fun and interesting videos about Christmas with an etymological or historical angle!