"Twelve Days of Christmas" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Happy holidays and welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re taking an etymological look at the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

The song’s title refers to the 12 days running from Christmas day until January 5, the eve of Epiphany. It includes a number of other religious andsecular dates that are celebrated as part of the Christmas season, such as the Feast of St Stephen on the 26th (you know, when Good King Wenceslas looked out) and New Year’s. In the middle ages the time leading up to Christmas, from Advent to Christmas eve, was traditionally a time of restraint and fasting, while the 12 days of Christmas were a time of merriment, games, and feasting, with the lord of the manor responsible for entertaining and providing for those in his care.

The song itself first appeared in print just as text without music in 1780, with the now familiar melody, an adaptation of a folk tune, first published by composer Frederic Austin in 1909. It seems to have originally been a cumulative song or forfeit game in which each participant would have to run through the growing list of gifts without stumbling, then add one more. Now of course we think of it as a Christmas carol. The word carol comes to English from Old French, either from the same Greek root which gives us choir or from a Latin root which means “little crown”. Originally the word was used to refer not to a song but to a type of ring dance, and it only gained the specific association of a Christmas song in the early 16th century.

Though there have been many theories about the significance of the gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas, it’s probably just a fun game, and so in that light-hearted spirit, we’ll have a look at the etymology of those twelve items, and see what they might tell us about the Christmas season.

Partridge has only one cognate in English: fart. Partridge comes, through Latin and Greek perdix, from a Proto-Indo-European root which meant “to fart loudly”, apparently because of the sound the bird’s wings make. So basically partridge means fart-bird. I say the root means “to fart loudly” because Proto-Indo-European had another similar root which meant “to fart softly”, both words being basically imitative of the sound of the bodily function they describe. The “fart softly” root lingers in a few more Modern English words such as fizzle, feisty (originally used to refer to smelly dogs, which were apparently also aggressive), and petard, now only used in the phrase Shakespeare famously coined in Hamlet “hoist with his own petard”. A petard is a small bomb used for blowing up gates and walls, so the the idiom means literally “lifted up by his own fart-bomb”. In Greek myth, Perdix is also the name of the nephew of Daedalus, who was so jealous of Perdix’s ingenuity at inventing that he pushed his nephew off a tower, but Athene the goddess of cleverness transformed him into a partridge, a bird which avoids lofty heights and always builds its nest on the ground. Which makes it a bit odd that the partridge would be in a pear tree, but it’s been suggested that the line may have become confused from an original that had both the English word and the French name for the bird, perdrix, not a pear tree.

Similarly, the ‘turtle’ of turtledove doesn’t come from the name of the reptile, but from a Latin root which is also imitative of the sound that bird makes. The name for the reptile is related to ‘tortoise’ which comes either from a Latin root meaning ‘twisted’, because of the shape of its feet, or from Greek Tartarus, because of the belief that they came from the underworld. This word turned into ‘turtle’ because it sounded similar to the already existing word referring to the bird. As for the word ‘dove’, it’s either related to ‘dive’ because of the flight of the bird, or it comes from a root meaning “to rise in a cloud” like smoke, referring to the bird’s smoky plumage.

The Bible mentions that two turtledoves were offered in sacrifice at the circumcision of Jesus, which took place one week after his birth, and has been celebrated in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st, (so, as part of the twelve days of Christmas). Throughout the middle ages, trade in sacred relics, such as the bones of a saint, was big business and could bring in donations from wealthy pilgrims to any church that had one. At one point there were in existence as many as 18 different purportedly authentic foreskins of Jesus, (known as the Holy Prepuce), but over the years most of them went missing, the last as recently as 1983; that one was rumoured to have been stolen by the Roman Catholic church, which has more recently downplayed the feast of the circumcision, probably because the whole thing is kind of embarrassing.

Moving on to the next bird, the word ‘hen’ comes from a root which means “to sing”, which might seem a bit odd until one realises that the word originally meant the rooster, the singer of the dawn, but somewhere along the line the word underwent a sex change and now refers to a female chicken or other female birds. As for why they’re French hens, the adjective, which could sometimes mean foreign or rare as in ‘French nuts’ for walnuts, a common Christmas treat, comes from the name of a Germanic tribe, the Franks, which moved into Gaul, or modern day France. The Franks, who took their name from a type of javelin that was their preferred weapon (or it might have been the other way around), were thus conquerors, and so the word ‘frank’ came to mean “superior” or “free” (in contrast to those they conquered who weren’t free), so when you speak frankly you’re speaking freely or openly — or, etymologically, I suppose, in French. So the French hens might simply be a superior or rare breed, and this sense also lies behind another famous Christmas connection, the frankincense which was given to the baby Jesus by one of the three Magi, again literally superior incense or the good stuff — well, it was a present for the son of God!

Though etymologically those French hens are singing, of all the birds mentioned in the song the four calling birds at first glance seem to be the only ones expressly said to be singing. Except they’re not. The ‘calling’ is another misheard and reinterpreted lyric, and the line was originally colly birds or literally coaly or coal coloured birds, in other words blackbirds. Funnily enough, the word ‘coal’ originally meant a glowing ember, not the dark-coloured mineral of fossilized carbon or the charcoal produced by superheating wood to remove the water, but it’s the later dark-coloured association that lies behind colly birds and probably also the dog breed known as collie. The word ‘bird’, by the way, was originally brid, referring specifically to young birds, with fowl being the more general term for birds, and might therefore be related to the word ‘brood’. As for coal, there are of course several Christmastide associations, such as the lump of coal you receive in your stocking if you’ve been bad, and the piece of coal you’re supposed to carry as you cross the threshold for the first time in the New Year as part of the First Footing tradition of Scotland and northern England.

While the five gold rings seems to be the first to break our run of birds, they may in fact be birds after all, either as another mishearing of goldspinks, another word for goldfinches, or as a reference to the rings around the necks of pheasants, or it might be from gulderer or gulder-cock, an old Scottish term for the turkey commonly served for Christmas dinner, referring to the gobbling sound it makes. The word ‘gold’ itself comes from a root which means “to shine”, and also gives us words such as gleam, glow, and yellow. Ring goes back to a root which means “turn or bend”, and is thus related to such tangentially Christmasy words as cross and crown, which may lie behind the word carol, you remember.

Before the turkey overtook it as the preferred Christmas dinner, the goose was the roast bird of choice for feasts. The word ‘goose’ goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root with a similar meaning. The common slang term “to goose” meaning to poke or pinch someone’s butt, first recorded in the late 19th century, supposedly comes from the resemblance of an upturned thumb to a goose’s neck. ‘To lie’ and its causative form ‘to lay’ come from a Proto-Indo-European root which has a number of other derivatives in English, including ‘ledger’ from the idea that it’s a large book that lies permanently in one place. Originally, the word was used to refer to large religious books such as bibles and breviaries, but later came to refer to books of financial accounts, especially after the invention of double-entry bookkeeping in the 15th century. Speaking of which, PNC Wealth Management calculates a Christmas Price Index based on the current costs of all of the items in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a humorous way of tracking inflation. As of 2015 it would cost $155,407.18 to buy all the gifts mentioned in the song (assuming the entire number is bought again every time they’re mentioned).

That ‘goose’ root occasionally refers to other waterfowl, such as a swan in the Old Irish cognate. However, the English word ‘swan’, funnily enough, comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to sound” which also gives us words such as ‘sound’ and ‘sonic’. This is odd because swans, like hens, aren’t particularly know for their singing. In fact, historically it was thought that swans were mute, and there was a legend that they sang a beautiful though mournful song only just before dying, hence the idiom ‘swan song’. Though this belief goes back to the ancient world, the expression is only found in English from the 19th century. The word ‘swim’ goes back to a Proto-Germanic root with roughly the same meaning, that also coincidentally gives us the otherwise unrelated word ‘sound’ in the sense of a body of water such as an inlet or narrow channel between the mainland and an island. So etymologically the swans a-swimming are the sounding birds in the sound!

Leaving that type of bird behind, ‘Maid’, a shortening of maiden, itself a diminutive, had the earlier sense of a virgin or a young unmarried girl (like Jesus’s mother Mary), but it goes back to a root which meant a young person of either sex. Because of the sorts of work a young unmarried girl would be expected to do, the word took on its modern associations. One such job might be in the production of dairy foods, so a dairymaid or milkmaid, and it’s that work which gives milk its name too, because ‘milk’ comes from a root which means “to wipe or stroke”, also giving us such words as emulsion and promulgate, so it refers to the action of collecting that milk by stroking the teat of the cow or other milk-producing animal, not to the milk itself nor its biological production. Another association of the milkmaid is her beautiful skin, as in the old-fashioned idiom ‘smooth as a milkmaid’s skin’. The reason she has such smooth skin is that milkmaids wouldn’t get the disfiguring (and often deadly) disease of smallpox because they were exposed to the similar but more benign cowpox, building up a natural immunity. And that’s where vaccination, both the thing and the word for it, came from when Edward Jenner had the bright idea of developing a smallpox vaccine from the cowpox virus, and it got its name from the Latinate root meaning cow.

Now all the dairy work really shouldn’t have been done by the maids, but by the ladies, at least etymologically speaking. The word dairy comes from the same root as the -dy part of ‘lady’, originally meaning “to form or build” and only later restricted to milk-related work, but this root also gives us the word ‘dough’, which is a clue to the meaning of the first part of lady: that is, the word loaf. So originally ‘ladies’ were ‘loaf-makers’. I guess you could say they’ve gone up in the world, which may be why they have all that time for dancing, a word that either comes from a root that means “to tremble” or one that means “to pull or stretch”, suggesting dancing in a line or file. That ‘stretch’ root also gives us the words ‘thin’ and ‘tone’, from the idea of the taut string on a musical instrument, and either way these dancing ladies remind us of the Christmas carol, which involved both singing and dancing.

And it’s dancing that’s probably implied by the leaping of those lords. The word ‘lord’, of course, is similarly formed to lady, meaning literally loaf-guardian. And this reminds us of the necessity of generosity for the lord of the manor, in entertaining and feeding those less fortunate. The word ‘leap’ comes from a Germanic root with roughly the same meaning. And funnily enough it also gives us the other word ‘loaf’ as in “to spend time idly”. So those lords are really loafing loaf-guards — the idle class indeed!

Of course with all this dancing we have to have music, and so there’s the pipers piping, another imitative root that is often used of the chirping of birds, and by extension of the tubular musical instrument, and then of any tube, musical or not. But from the chirping bird sense, through Latin and French, we also get the word pigeon, another name for the dove or turtledove from before.

And at last we come to those drummers drumming. Though it’s a little unclear exactly what the root is and what it means, drum seems to come from the same root as trumpet and trombone. Though the musical instruments don’t on the face of it seem that similar, it appears this root referred generally to a noisy instrument, which might be specified by a compound word like drumslade, the -slade part meaning ‘to hit’, so a noisy instrument you hit; this was eventually shortened simply to ‘drum’. That -slade part, by the way, is related to “slay” and “slaughter”, which originally had the sense of hitting and eventually came to mean to kill by hitting or simply to kill, and at Christmas might remind us of the biblical story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which King Herod attempted to avoid the prophecy of a coming messiah by having all the male children that might be Jesus put to death, an event commemorated on December 28th and recounted in another seasonal song The Coventry Carol. Oh, and as for that word ‘trumpet’ or its shortening ‘trump’, it quickly developed a slang sense meaning to make a sound like a trumpet or in other words to fart (noisily!), and that brings us back to the first gift of that fart-bird, the partridge.

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