Wordsworth: Holiday Words

JOSEPH GALLAGHER

December 20, 1991|By Joseph Gallagher

Christmas, of course, refers to the ''mass'' celebrated in memory of the birth of Christ. The French call the feast ''Noel'' -- their word for ''birth,'' which comes from the Latin ''natallis.'' People born December 25 were sometimes named Natalla (Natalie/Natasha). ''Yule'' is probably a pre-Christmas name for December solstice festivities. Of unknown meaning, yule may be the root for ''jolly'' (and the French ''joli'').

The holiday toast, ''wassail,'' is an old English phrase meaning ''Be hale.'' The ''nog'' of eggnog is an old word for ''ale.'' Holidays were originally holy days; and though the hollyhock has a ''holy'' connection, Christmas holly doesn't -- it comes from a word meaning ''to prick.'' The ''toe'' of mistletoe means ''twig.'' The ''mistle'' part refers to the moist, ''misty'' droppings of the missel thrush, which propagate the shrub. Our first minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, brought back a colorful plant which became the poinsettia. He left behind a new Mexican word, ''poinsettismo,'' meaning the behavior of an intrusive foreigner.

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