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Dec 25, 2010 | A rather linguistic Christmas to you all!

Some interesting observations this very merry Christmas day:

Why do some songs refer to the First Nowell and others the First Noël?
It turns out that Noel itself comes from the Middle English nowel, which in turn is from the French noël, a variant of nael, from the Latin natalis, or “birth” (day). The French Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française and the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales states that the first written record of the French noël is in 1112, in a version of The Voyage of Saint Brendan. It appears as “noel” in Philippe de Thaon’s “Li Cumpoz” (Google Books), the French bestiary.

Li Cumpoz
The first reference to “noel” in French is found in Phillppe de Thaon (Thaün)’s book, Li Cumpoz, which appeared in 1119.

The French Wikipedia page suggests that the transformation from natalis to noël comes from a dissimilation of the former. Dissimilation describes when pronunciations become dropped: “beserk” for berserk, “supprise” for surprise, or in the case of Latin, hominem to Old Spanish omne, rarus for Italian rado). The First Nowell appeared in its current form in the early 1823 in a book by Sandys and Gilbert called “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern”, though the music for it didn’t appear for another 10 years. The earliest record of the use of nowel is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “The Franklin’s Tale” (14th century) (see Google Book page).


An excerpt from Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, with the use of “nowel” as an exclamation

Where does the word Santa Claus and Kriss Kringle come from?
It appears to be from the Dutch word for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children and sailors, and his name day is actually the 6th of December. It was apparently first observed in 1773 in a New York newspaper called the Riverton Gazetteer, though this has been difficult to verify. This does make sense, however, given the Dutch presence in New York (though Dutch colonial rule over what later became New York had ended about a hundred years prior).


The Russian icon for Saint Nicholas.

Kriss Kringle is an Americanized pronunciation and orthonormalization of the German Christkindl, or “Christ child”. Merriam-Webster states it first appeared in use in 1849, though the online etymology dictionary suggests a path through Pennsylvania German, Christ-kinkle, around 1830.

For other wonderful language origins to keep you warm, check out this page from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 25th, 2010 at 4:36 pm, EST under the category of Language. Both comments and pings are currently closed.