Boxing Day

No, we didn’t establish a bank holiday just for eating leftover roast potatoes and turkey sandwiches. Nor is it a holiday for those brave enough to face the post-Christmas sale shopping madness. And no it doesn’t have anything to do with the sport of boxing either. Boxing Day is a holiday celebrated in the UK and many other Commonwealth nations, but no-one really knows why.

The 26th of December is also known as St Stephen’s Day and was celebrated as the Feast of St Stephen since the early Christian period. Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr and a saint important enough to be celebrated the day after Christmas, by the 1800s, the religious festival was pushed aside for the secular Boxing Day and the first recorded instance of the term comes from 1809.

One theory on the origin of the term comes from the religious celebrations: the box refers to the alms box which was used to collect money in the church. The contents were then distributed to the poor on St Stephen’s Day.

Another theory comes from sailing since large ships would carry a sealed box of money on board for good luck. If the ship arrived safely, a priest would open the box on Christmas Day and give the money to the poor. This one seems fairly unlikely since, following the theory, Boxing Day would fall on the 25th, not the 26th.

The most plausible answer seems to be that Boxing Day comes from the custom of giving Christmas Boxes  of money or presents to servants on the day after Christmas. Essentially, a Christmas bonus. This tradition is mentioned as early as 1663 in Samuel Pepy’s diary so it is quite possible that the practise gave rise to the term Boxing Day eventually. It could also be related to the custom of the St Stephen’s Day alms box as well as the older tradition of giving the servants the day off on the day after Christmas to be with their families since they would have to work on Christmas Day itself.


Turkey and Sprouts

I do feel sorry for the humble Brussels sprout. It’s that awkward dinner guest that no-one wanted to invite but ended up at the table anyway because it had nowhere else to go. So why do we bother with them? And do they really come from Brussels? Do turkeys actually have anything to do with Turkey?

The first part is no real mystery: Brussels sprouts are cultivated annually and come into season in the winter. They can withstand the frost and so would be available even in the bitterest of winters.

However, it does seem odd that one vegetable can come from such a specific place. In fact, a sort of precursor to the sprout was grown in Ancient Rome. But the sprout as we know it is indeed a product of Brussels, thanks to the cool climate. It is thought to have been cultivated there since the 13th century but the first record of the term comes from 1587.

Another key feature of our British Christmas dinner that’s not actually British at all is of course the turkey, but we all know turkey comes from North America, not Turkey. The key to this is that the word turkey was actually first used not to refer to the bird we eat at Christmas, but to guinea fowl, which were imported from Madagascar via Turkey by turkey merchants. The North American bird was introduced to Spain in 1523 by the conquistadors and then spread to the rest of Europe shortly after. By the 1550s it was recognised in English as turkey because it was thought to be related to the guinea fowl and by 1575 it became a popular main feature on our Christmas dinner plates.

So when it comes to tucking in on the 25th, you dinner dilemma is solved: sprouts are Belgian but turkeys aren’t Turkish.

It’s behind you!

It’s one of our great British Christmas traditions and no doubt families will be flocking into theatres across the country over the next few weeks to get festive with a classic pantomime. For us Brits, there’s nothing we love more than a good old panto with risqué innuendos aplenty, B-list celebrities, much-loved audience participation, and a man in drag in some outlandish get-up. It’s a source of great national pride.panto

For any non-Brit readers, it probably sounds a bit eccentric. Pantomimes are performed around the Christmas period and are popular with children, although there are many cheeky jokes aimed at adults which generally go over the kids’ heads. The story will vary between productions but they are all loosely based on a popular fairy tale or children’s story such as Cinderella or Aladdin.

Pantomime as we know it allegedly originated around 1710 and was popularised in the Victorian era but the word itself goes back to Ancient Greece. The Greek pantomimos means ‘actor’ or literally ‘imitator of all’ from panto- ‘all’ and mimos ‘imitator’. It was then loaned into Latin with the meaning ‘mime, dancer’ and reached English by the 1610s as ‘mime actor’. The word then evolved from denoting the actors to referring to the show itself and many conventions of the Italian ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ were adopted, including several of the stock characters and an emphasis on song and dance.

Another offshoot of ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ is slapstick comedy, which today means ‘farcical physical comedy’. The lead male in ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ was Harlequin, a magical character with a wooden sword that would be used sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a wand. This sword would make a loud slapping noise when used, so as to make slapping other characters more comical. Thus, the joke was slapstick. To this day, a drummer in the orchestra pit will highlight and accentuate a slapstick joke with a slapping noise.

So for the next time you see Buttons or Widow Twankey, you’ll know exactly where pantomime and slapstick com from. Now you just need to refine your hisses, boos and oh no it is isn’ts!

For more on the history and evolution of pantomime, read on:

Dead as a Doornail

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

If you can’t guess where that well-known novel-starter comes from you might need to brush up on your Chris lit. A Christmas Carol is my favourite yuletide read and is credited with popularising many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today. What’s more, Dickens kicked of his Christmas classic with an interesting linguistic query:

“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

It was a fairly old expression even by Dickens’ time, with the first attestation coming from 1350, and another one of our favourite home-grown writers, Shakespeare, used it in his Henry IV. At that time, there were plenty of other variations to choose from too, such as as dead as mutton or as dead as a herring. It was as dead as doornail that won out, probably because the alliteration of ‘d’ gives it a nice ring, but that doesn’t explain why doornails were particularly dead to begin with.

One possibility is that the doornail refers to the large, heavy nails which were studded into medieval doors for decorative purposes. Since they were so old and enduring, they might be considered dead enough.

Another possibility is that the doornail is in fact the nail found underneath a door knocker. After so many knocks on the head, that nail might be considered pretty dead too.


Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’

However the most likely explanation is that it comes from a standard term in carpentry. In a method called clinching, a nail is hammered through a piece of wood and then flattened at the other end so that it can’t fall out or be removed. This nail is then said to be dead as it can’t be reused and it was a practice particularly common in doors since they needed to be durable and secure.

This seems to me the most plausible answer, especially since now to clinch can mean ‘to settle definitely and conclusively; to make final’ and what’s more final or conclusive than being as dead as a doornail? If only Dickens were around to read Word Stories, he might find out exactly what there is particularly dead about a doornail.



There are only 17 more sleeps until Christmas so it’s time to start feeling festive with some seasonal word stories. The first interesting one I came across was Yule. We’ve all heard of yuletide and everyone likes the chocolaty goodness of a Yule log but does anyone really know what Yule itself is? Or why we celebrate with a log-shaped cake?

Unsurprisingly, it’s a fairly old word. It comes from Old Norse jol (plural) which entered Old English as geol. Yule was originally a pre-Christianity midwinter festival period which was connected to the Norse God Odin and celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In fact, in Old Norse, often the word was synonymous with feast. The earliest citations are found in the ancient month names Ærra Jéola ‘Before Yule’ and Æftera Jéola ‘After Yule’ which probably correspond to December and January. Bede, the man who provided the first historical accounts of the English, in the eighth century, even wrote about geola or giuli in his comments on the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

Ancient yule celebrations were not unlike our own: a feast, toasts, visiting the temple, and drinking lots of ale. Except for the custom of making animal sacrifices to the gods before serving the roast. That one didn’t quite stand the test of time.Yule Log

As Britain converted to Christianity and since both festivals took place at around the same time, Yule was eventually absorbed into Christmas and the word fell into general disuse by the eleventh century. Oddly, the term stuck around in the Northeast, possibly because this was the area of Danish settlement.

The term was then revived by 19th century writers referring nostalgically to life in ‘Merrie England’, a supposedly idyllic and truly ‘English’ pastoral way of life which was supposedly led between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.

The Yule log also allegedly originates from Germanic paganism although no one knows for sure since the first attestation comes from the 1720s. However, the original Yule log was not, of course, a chocolaty treat but a lump of wood. Traditionally, the large Yule log would be cut and dragged home while people walked alongside and sang songs. It would sometimes be decorated with evergreens and then it would be placed onto a fire which had been started using the remnants of the previous year’s log. This would bring prosperity and protection from evil and by keeping the log through the year, its protection lasted through the year too. The log would be burned for at least twelve hours and sometimes up to twelve days. Then the remaining ashes would be sprinkled onto the fields to bring fertility.

Yule Log CakeThe modern-day Yule log or bûche de Noël is a chocolate roulade decorated to look like a log and the name was transferred to the cake as the log-burning custom was abandoned, probably in the first half of the 20th century. The cake was invented in France but no-one knows exactly when or by whom.

Another interesting spin-off of the original jol is actually another Christmassy word although it hasn’t developed so directly. Jol was loaned from Old Norse into Old French as jolif, meaning ‘festive, merry, amorous, pretty’ which then evolved into Modern French as joli, ‘pretty, nice’, but into English as jolly. So here’s to a jolly Yule!

Black Friday

We’re in the week after Black Friday and the Christmas countdown in well underway. It’s the time for linguistic festive fun. But before my etymological advent calendar kicks in, I wanted to look into why our Christmas shopping starts off ‘black’.

Black Friday ShoppersNow Black Friday is a pretty new practice on this side of the pond but, never one to miss a bargain, this year British shoppers and retailers adopted the convention too. Traditionally, Black Friday falls on the day after Thanksgiving, when millions of US shoppers descend upon the shopping malls and town centres to bag a good buy for Christmas. But Black Friday doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant day, so where does it come from?

Many think that the name originates from the idea that retailers ‘go into the black’ on the day since their profits increase significantly. However, the Friday is ‘black’ because it is considered unpleasant, at least by those who coined the term, police officers in Philadelphia. Apparently, the traffic caused by the crowds of shoppers plus the football fans heading to the annual Army-Navy football game held in the town was so bad that the day became insufferable.

The first written example comes from 1961 and originally retailers disliked the term because they thought its negativity would put shoppers off. On the contrary, Black Friday has become more popular every year and merchants benefit from the trend by offering various discounts. Since then, several spin-off days have been invented by retailers such as Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday. In fact, Walmart even started opening its doors to shoppers on the Thursday evening (Thanksgiving Day) and re-labelled the day none other than Grey Thursday.

Decimated English

You only have to dabble around in literature on language for a while to realize there’s an ongoing debate about ‘correct’ language use. For those passionate linguistic warriors it’s not even a debate but a battle. We’re talking about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism.

In short, prescriptivists believe that we are getting sloppier with our language, people don’t communicate correctly anymore, and, thus, English is going to the dogs. Meanwhile, descriptivists are not concerned with enforcing grammar rules and lamenting the glory days of the English language but just record language as it is and label the so-called deterioration of English as ‘language change’. Prescriptivists tend to be non-linguists; descriptivists tend to be linguists, or anyone who’s ever read a book on language change.

Personally, I find the argument generally uninteresting. What I do find interesting are those little articles prescriptivists write with titles like ’10 Words You Didn’t Know You Were Using Incorrectly’ or ’15 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean’. Not because I learn exactly how my understanding of English is ‘wrong’ but because of the interesting etymology that they reveal. For example, a word that came up recently was decimate. Most of us understand decimate with the first meaning cited in the OED:

verb  [with object]

  1. kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of:

            ‘the inhabitants of the country had been decimated’

  •  drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something):

             ‘public transport has been decimated’

But this article pointed out that the ‘real’ meaning isn’t to destroy totally or even largely but it means, very specifically, to destroy one tenth of something, which seems obvious when you look at it: decimate comes from the Latin decimare whose root is decem, meaning ‘ten’ like the decem in December. It entered English in the 15th century with the sense of a tithe, a tax of ten per cent of one’s annual income, but within a hundred years it came to mean ‘destroy a large portion of something’.

However, the original Roman practice of decimare was a punishment on mutinous legions or rebellious cities. Soldiers would be drawn out by lots of ten and one in every lot would be executed. Consequently, the group was decimated.

Although it would be easy to mourn the loss of such a delightfully precise meaning, we have gained a more general and widely-used meaning in the process. Language change does not leave a language ‘decimated’ but helps us to communicate as our society evolves, unless of course we want to keep those old Roman punishments too.