18th December 2018

A linguistic history of Christmas in 5 words

By Sean Martin

Many teachers at this time of the year have turned their thoughts to bringing Christmas into their classrooms with songs and vocabulary. I’ve also heard many a time on the bus, the lively teacher chit chat about when their term ends and the holiday destinations that await them… But how much do you and your students know about those ‘Christmas words’ that pop up at this time of year? I thought a little ‘word archaeology’ might add something extra to the English language classroom and throw in a fact or two for family and friends along the way.

Words don’t simply appear, they come from somewhere and evolve, even those that come ‘just once a year’. So, let’s see what we can dig up as ‘word archaeologists' for ‘Christmassy words’.


Reindeer synonymous with Christmas, is a compound (rein+deer); in Old English a deor was any wild animal, but was used as we know it now after the 11th century invasion of England when William declared it illegal to for anyone except himself to hunt deer (and other animals) under his ‘Forest Law’. The ‘rein’ comes from Old Norse ‘hreinn’, perhaps not surprising since for most people in Medieval England the reindeer was an animal living in Scandinavia.


Baubles or ‘babels’ in 14th Century England and perhaps before were basically bits of bling and under the influence of the French became ‘baubel’-now it starts to make sense. In Tudor England, the jester’s baton was a buable and the jester a ‘bauble bearer’. Not all positive though, ‘to give the bauble’ in 17th Century England was to make fun of someone. So, when you’re talking about baubles, think again.


Merry has a long history connected with pleasure; Old English ‘myrge’, pleasant or agreeable and widening its usage in Middle English to really anything that was pleasant, the weather, sounds, tastes and in the 16th Century ‘Merry Monday’ (the day before Shrove Tuesday). ‘Black Friday’ and the like are not new. Merry stuck around in its ow right until the 19th Century but hung on with its Christmas uses.


Mistletoe is another Christmas word that is a compound; a ‘tan’ in Old English was a twig and  one idea is the Old English ‘mistel’ described the poo of the birds that ate the berries on the mistletoe and the seeds in the bird poo then grew into the new mistletoe. A rough interpretation from Old English might be ‘bird poo twig’ … Less romantic if we think of the tradition carried out under the mistletoe.


Partridge (as 'partridge in a pear tree’) also has a less than savoury evolution. In Middle English, the partridge was known as ‘partriche’, adapted from Old French, ‘perdiz’, allegedly related to the Greek ‘perdesthai’- break wind, which describes, according to some, the sound made by the wings of the heavy, poor flying partridge when trying to take off …

On that note, if you want to try some ‘word archaeology’, try distinguishing ‘merry’ and ‘happy’ and decide which greeting you would prefer to give/receive. I recommend oxforddictionaries.com, etymonline.com & mentalfloss.com as excellent resources.

If you're looking for Christmas related teaching activities, check out our previous articles from 2016 & 2017. If you're in Hong Kong, keep an eye on our upcoming teacher training workshops which are held reguarly throughout the year.

Sean Martin over the last 10 years in Hong Kong has worked in a variety of TESOL settings, including teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors, including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity Colege London cert.TESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.