Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

Continue reading “Why is it called an “inauguration”?”

Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots

“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means. 

With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and  Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.

Continue reading “Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots”

What is the “mail” in “blackmail”?

The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.

This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?

Border issues

Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.

In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.

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The Border reivers know what you did. A scanned drawing, by George Cattermole, of Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An etymological “tribute” 

The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)

The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.

Not so black and white

As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.

More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.

Snail “mail”?

Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:

  • Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
  • Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
  • Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
  • House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
  • Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
  • Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
  • Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice

Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.

And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps? 

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“Sequoia”: a giant-sized controversy

Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?

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The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American originals

In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he called Sequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.

Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.

One after the other

Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder. 

Among giants

As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)

Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.

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“Names in the News” at Nameberry

Guest-blogging on Nameberry 

Back in September, I started guest-blogging on Nameberry, a leading baby name website created by name experts Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz. Alongside an active forum, thematic lists of baby names, and a daily blog, Nameberry features a searchable database of over 50,000 names, including trends on their popularity.

As a word nerd, I particularly like the quick info Nameberry provides on the meaning and origin of names – and I use it as a springboard for my “Names in the News” posts on the site. Each month, I round up a list of some of the biggest, and most interesting, names that made the headlines the previous month and suss out the surprises in their etymologies. Last December, for instance, Kirk Douglas turned 100 while Mariah Carey couldn’t have been happier to turn a new page on 2017 after her New Year’s Eve performance. What do the names Kirk and Mariah mean, and what might their origins reveal about their current moment? Read my latest, and catch up on previous months, over at Nameberry.

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New Year’s “resolutions”: an etymology not meant to last

“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?

Resolution

The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.

But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.

But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What  gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness. 

This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.

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The “best” and “worst” of 2016

As the new year fast approaches, we like to look back on the best – and worst – of the previous year. Twenty-sixteen did great work of the latter category, which is why I chose 2016 as the ‘word’ of the year on Slate. But why is best called “best” and what makes worst “worst”? Let’s have a look back on the origin of these two yearend favorites.

You ‘supplete’ me

English forms comparative adjectives by adding -er or more (faster, more furious) and superlative adjectives with -est or most (fastest, most furious). Except when it doesn’t. Good and bad present us with a curious exception: good/better/best and bad/worse/worst. Linguists call this irregularity “suppletion,” as an unrelated form fills, or supplies, a gap in a grammatical paradigm.

We especially see suppletion in verbs: Take went as the past tense of go, for instance, or try your tongue at any number of everyday Romance language verbs (aller/vais). And while we may treat all suppletive forms as irregular, we can’t consider all irregular forms as suppletive. Teeth and geese are irregular plurals (viz. adding -s/-es to the end of a word), but they actually follow a regular pattern of making words plural that English has long since lost.

Good jobs

Good – from the Old English god, with no apparent relation to the divine beings – ultimately traces back to Germanic and Indo-European roots for “fitting” and “suitable.” And it would have been fitting if the word good‘s degrees of comparison, following the regular paradigm, were gooder and goodest, but, alas, good (and well) use better and best.

English gets better (Old English, betera) and best (betst) from old and widespread comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic base, *bat-, meaning “good.” This root  also provides boot, “advantage” or “profit,” now only surviving in the phrase to boot, or “additionally.” This boot, unrelated to the footwear, may have influenced a pirate’s booty, but no further etymological connection is certain.

So, better and best, while themselves irregular forms for good, display a regular pattern for expressing comparison in English. Better, to put it very simply, adds -er to its root adjective. Best adds -est.

Bad boys

Now, badder and baddest – which, in spite of grammar scolds, enjoy some dialectical and colloquial currency today – were once normal forms of bad. (The origin of bad is a big question mark. Some point to the Old English bæddel, “hermaphrodite” or “effeminate man,” a derogatory term, which, thankfully, is outdated.) In Middle English, bad began supplanting evil and ill as the go-to descriptor for something “not good.” Evil and ill, meanwhile, used worse and worst for their comparatives and superlatives. As bad rose, it took worse and worst with it.

Like better and best, worse (Old English wyrsa) and worst (wyrresta) also come from the regular comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic root, adding -er and -est to *wers-, “to entangle.” This same root provides war; an “entanglement” causes confusion, a meaning which intensified over time. And the s in worse actually preserves a really old form of the Germanic source of -er (*-izon; -est < -isto). This makes a form like worser a double comparative; again, in spite of language peevers, worser was once a common and acceptable form. (Bestest, a double superlative, has been used for humorous emphasis since the 1750s.)

For better or worse

It turns out that it’s not better/best and worse/worst that are the grammatical ‘problem.’ As their etymologies show, they follow a pattern, leaving good and bad as the true troublemakers. But why would English even do this in the first place?

For one thing, English isn’t alone. Latin, along with many other Indo-European languages, shows suppletion in its “good” and “bad” trios: bonus/melior/optimus and malus/peior/pessimus, respectively.

For another, it just the way it is. Language is messy – and so are its speakers. As etymologist Anatoly Liberman sums it up best: “Good needed a partner meaning ‘more than good’ and better offered its services. We would have preferred ‘gooder,’ but our indomitable ancestors chose to do their work the hard way.”

It couldn’t’ve been any worse, I suppose.

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The 2016 “Etymology of the Year”

The mouth of Donald Trump excited a tremendous – er, huge – amount of etymological activity on Mashed Radish in 2016. But there’s one that easily trumped them all: the word trump itself, the winner of my first annual “Etymology of the Year.”

Trump

In early modern English, trump meant “to cheat” or “deceive.” This verb, first found in the 1480s, comes from the French tromper, meaning the same as the English. The origin is unclear, but some have suggested the French used tromper, which could also mean “to play the horn,” as an idiom for mockery. Various fraudsters, the theory goes, once blew horns to attract people to their swindles. The verb shows up in trompe l’oeil, “trick of the eye,” referring, especially, to optical illusions in visual art.

The French tromper, as its brassy connections already suggested,  is indeed related to English’s own trumpet, of which trump is itself the earlier variation. In a painful irony to many, the last trump, based on a translation from the Greek, was once the term for the sound of the trumpet that raised the dead for judgment at the end of the world, according to the New Testament. Trump may have also influenced the use of trunk for an elephant’s snout.

Another instrument, the trombone, shares a deeper, Germanic source with trumpet, from a root which imitates a sudden blast of sound. And drum may additionally be related, or at least formed in a similar fashion. The “deceitful” trump later produced trumpery, whose meaning of “trickery” inspired a sense of “goods that are showy but cheap,” further extended as an adjective for “trifling” or “trashy.”

Now, the Trump family surname was at one point modified from Drumpf, much to the amusement of comedian John Oliver during the presidential campaign. Drumpf is a Germanic name, and could be connected to the root for drum. Trump, unchanged, is a surname from the French Trompeor, rooted in the same tromper and meaning a “maker of trumpets.” 

Trump cards, meanwhile, are played from a different etymological hand. This trump is believed to be a corruption of triumph, once the name of a card game. A triumph, or “great achievement,” comes from the Latin triumpus, which was a procession a military general lead into Rome after a big victory. Its origin is also unclear, but a possible source may be the Greek thriambos (θρίαμβος), referring to a hymn in honor of the fertility god Dionysus, frequently associated with his cult of ecstatic hedonism. The deeper root of the Greek thriambos may be a kind of triple-time march-step.

Loud and brassy noise, deception and showiness, elephants, Ancient Roman victory tours, games, cultish followings? There’s only one etymology that could possibly bring all these Trumpian elements together – and that’s trump.

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.

Dasher

A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”

Dancer

Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   

Prancer

Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

Vixen

A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 

Comet

Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Cupid

In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.

Rudolph

Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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The true meaning of “Kris Kringle”

The Santa Claus figure, who brings children gifts each Christmas in many Western cultures, goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, to name a few. But one name, Kris Kringle, doesn’t originally refer to any Santa at all. 

Kris Kringle

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Kris Kringle in James Watson’s 1830s Annals of Philadelphia: “Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights.”

In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsh-nichel, literally either “fur Nicholas” or “flog Nicholas,” is a mysterious, and terrifying, Christmas gift-giver who wears fur and carries a switch. For good children, Belsh-nichel brings candies. For naughty youngsters, he brings his switch down onto their backs.

Christ-kinkle, source of Kris Kringle, is also a Santa Claus character for the Pennsylvania Dutch. But originally, Kris Kringle is a name for that other central figure, and namesake, of Christmas: the Christ Child.

Kris is from the German for Christ, and Christ is from the Greek for “to rub” or “smear” oil, which anointed the likes of prophets, priests, kings – and Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Anointed One. Kringle, if we reverse some sound changes and strip away a diminutive suffix in the Pennsylvania German language, goes back to kind, which means “child” in German. The English kind as in humankind, kind of, or “nice” – is related. Kind shares a deeper root with kin and oh-so-many other words, from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “family,” in turn from the prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, “to produce.” 

In a number of European and Latin American cultures, the annual Christmas gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but the Christ Child himself. Indeed, he goes by Christkind in a number of Germanic-language cultures, including in southwestern Germany, where many of the Pennsylvania Dutch hail from. (Nor should we forget Santa Claus ultimately traces back to the Dutch Sinter Niklaas, “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century Greek bishop whom Christians came to honor as the patron saint of children.)

For the Pennsylvania Dutch – and then the broader, Christian, English-speaking, North American culture – time merged a tradition of Santa Claus with the language of Baby Jesus: Kris Kringle. And so, if you’re one who is concerned that commercialism has made us blind to the “true meaning of Christmas,” Kris Kringle may offer a little etymological reminder. 

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