Fast Mash

  • Christmas blends and clips Christ’s mass; earlier forms include Old English’s Cristes mæsse
  • Christ, the title of “anointed” given to Jesus of Nazareth, comes from a Greek translation (khristos) of the Semitic messiah; ultimately, the epithet is from a Greek verb, khriein, meaning to “rub” or “smear” oil, a custom reserved to consecrate prophets, priests, and kings
  • This Greek verb is from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghrei-, meaning “rub”; cream, character, crisscross, grit, grime, and gruel are related
  • Mass may well be from a form of the Latin mittere (send; think mission) used to dismiss a Eucharistic service  

“Merry Christmas.” How often do we utter this phrase without a thought for its “true meaning”? No, I’m not talking about cheer or charity. I’m talking about etymology. And whether or not you celebrate the holiday, the word Christmas still holds surprises.


The word Christmas is a like a gift whose packaging does little to conceal the present inside: It joins Christ, as in Jesus of Nazareth, and mass, as in the Eucharistic service. But a good word origin is the gift that keeps on giving. (No joke: I asked for Anatoly Liberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology for Christmas.)

I’m pretty sure most people in predominantly Christian cultures have at one early time or another thought Christ to be Jesus’ last name. But Christ is a title or epithet, given to Jesus of Nazareth by his followers after his death. Through the Latin transcription of Christus, Christ comes from the Greek, Χριστός, or khristόs, “the anointed one,” a translation of Hebrew’s mashiah, which gives us messiah. At the root of khristos is the Greek verb khriein, or “to rub” or “anoint,” stemming from the Proto-Indo-European *ghrei-, or “to rub.”

To put it way too simply, priests, prophets, and kings, particularly in Judaic history, were anointed with oil to symbolize the person’s divine appointment and purpose. To his disciples, then, Jesus the Christ was Jesus the One Anointed by God to…do his Jesus stuff. (I jest. I had too much Catholic schooling not to have a sense of humor about all of this.) I should say: Anointed as a savior, deliverer, liberator. As the Online Etymology Dictionary observes, “the Latin term drove out Old English Hæland ‘healer, savior,’ the preferred descriptive term for Jesus.”

I don’t know about you, but Christ was my dad’s preferred descriptive term for anything but Jesus.

In Catholic traditions, among many others, the chrism names this holy, anointing oil and derives from the same Greek roots. It’s also known as myrrh. Yes, that myrrh–which, for most of us, is a word that exists only as a holiday factoid or religious trivia. But historically, myrrh–aromatic resin deriving from a Semitic root for “bitter”–was a highly valuable ingredient for oils, incense, and medicine. Indeed, ancient Egyptians even used it to embalm mummies.

And frankincense? It’s also an aromatic resin, and it derives from the French franc (noble, true, of highest quality, related to English’s own “frank”) and encens (incense).

“Smear” Campaign

The Three Magi may have given gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Indo-European root of Christ–*ghrei-, “to rub”–also gives us cream, character, grime, grit, and gruel.

Cream, blending a Latin/Gaulish term and Greek’s khrisma (unguent), is scraped off the top of milk. Also from the Greek, character originally referred to “pointed stake,” an “engraved mark,” or an “imprint on the soul” (or branded on a felon), and served as a metaphor for a distinguishing feature. Everything from chrome to chromosome features a Greek root for khroma, meaning “color,” particularly in reference to the skin, ultimately related (by some logic) to *ghrei-. And perhaps more intuitively is grit (tiny, grounded up rocks); grime (with roots in meanings for “dirt” and “to smear”); and gruel (originating in a sense of fine, ground-up meal).

FInally, we have crisscross, that hashed pattern of intersecting lines. The Online Etymology Dictionary grinds it down better than I can:

1818, from Middle English crist(s)-crosse “Christ’s cross” (late 15c.), earlier cros-kryst (late 14c.), “referring to the mark of a cross formerly written before the alphabet in hornbooks. The mark itself stood for the phrase Christ-cross me speed (‘May Christ’s cross give me success’), a formula said before reciting the alphabet” [Barnhart]. Used today without awareness of origin.

A hornbook is a primer for young children, especially a textbook meant to teach children how to learn the alphabet. Look closely in the top left corner of these historic primers, and you’ll see that original crisscross:

Now I know my ABC’s. Image courtesy of


I always thought that mass referred to the gathering of people for a religious service. Indeed, that’s a different kind of mass. This mass, passing through Old English’s mæsse, is not concerned with the coming together but the sending away. On this, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology is delightfully discursive:

L. missa is a verbal sb….from pp. stem miss- of ‘mittere’ send, send away (cf. MISSION); it is first recorded from IV…and in the early centuries is applied to various religious services, but pre-eminently to the Eucharist; the primary meaning is disputed, but many hold that its application to a service results from a transference of meaning in phr. such as ‘Ite, missa est’ Depart, it is the dismissal (i.e. the service is at an end), ‘Et missae fiant’ And let the dismissals be made (at the end of an office).

So, from the Latin, mass is likely sent off from the same root as mission, cousin to words like permit and promise or commit and emission.

As for Christmas’ story in English, the Oxford Dictionary of English is delightfully concise:

festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ, 25 Dec. Late OE. Cristes mæsse, ME. cristes masse…, cristesmesse,…cristmasse; i.e. ‘mass’, i.e. festival (MASS) of CHRIST.

Aside from being a good example of the forces of economy in language change, It seems that regular capitalization of Christ and the “restored” spelling using ch– came later. Mass lives on in the sense of “festival,” Oxford notes, in, likely now obscure to many (except some perhaps to my UK counterparts), in Candlemas, Childermas, Hallowmas, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, among others.

In the interest of all the better things you have to do this holiday season, my readers: Ite, missa est. And happiest holidays! The Mashed Radish will be back in 2014.

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the four seasons, part iv (winter)

Fast Mash

  • Winter, attested in the same form in Old English around 888, comes through Proto-Germanic’s *wentruz, perhaps ultimately from Proto-Indo-European’s *wed-, *wod, or *ud-, meaning “wet,” or *wind-, meaning “white”
  • The early sense of winter, as one of the two major divisions of the year alongside summer, may have been the “rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” due to snow
  • Winter has thus been used to mark time, years, age, and the like

As Richard III famously begins:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest genius is the density of his wordplay. In these two, not-so-mere lines, he layers rich metaphors–seasonal, celestial, political, physical–as Gloucester enviously marks the ascension of his brother to the throne after civil war. Yet this winter does not merely chill us with its barren cold. It also weighs us down with its suggestion of old age and affliction.


Winter is itself an old word. Its modern form is unchanged from its Old English ancestor, winter. King Alfred the Great, among his other accomplishments–such as, oh, I don’t know, defending West Saxon against relentless Scandinavian sieges, helping secure England as a nation–translated, among other works, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from Latin into Old English. Not only did Alfred’s reign help ensure English–and not a Scandinavian tongue like Danish–was actually spoken on the British Isles, but he also helped promote English as a vital, legitimate language of literature and learning. Indeed, the OED’s earliest attestation of winter comes from that translation of Boethius around 888:

On sumera hit bið wearm, & on wintra ceald

Wintra–lest we forget, Old English was a highly inflected language. Wintra, here, is in the dative case. But the sense of the passage still speaks for itself, even over a millennium later.

Winter told time, marking, in contradistinction to summer, a major part of the year. In its older Germanic forms, as Partridge observes from his sources, winter may have meant “the rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” because, quoting a German etymologist, in the Old Germanic period, “time was measured by nights and winters.”

And at the root of winter may be the ancient words for wet and white themselves. Coming from Proto-Germanic’s *wentruzwinter may ultimately derive, though nasalized, from the Proto-Indo-European *wed-, *wod-, or *ud-, meaning “wet.” Or it may come from *wind-, meaning “white.” WaterWet? Yes, they may be related to winter. As may be otter.

The Indo-European cognates to these roots are astounding. You may recognize them in hydrogen or undulate, but I’ll save those for my upcoming series on “The Four Classic Elements” and on “The Colors.” There is much to look forward to in the new year.

Winter also recorded ages. Concerning livestock, twinter survives dialectically to refer to sheep or cattle two-years old, while thrinter refers to those into a third year. According to Weekley, aenetre, from an-wintre, once meant “one-year-old.” Of people, Weekley notes: “A young lady’s age is reckoned [figuratively] by summers, an old man’s by winters.” How apt.

Mind of Winter

From the most fundamental contrasts–day and night, wet and dry–we form our language for change. Yes, in the word winter I like to think we witness a primordial, phenomenological experience–of time, of the world, of our senses, of our own bodies. This directness, this pre-predicative perspective, to me, is that “mind of winter” Wallace Stevens urges us to take on in “The Snow Man.” Neither winters of discontent nor content, but just “juniper shagged with ice.”  That is winter made glorious indeed.

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With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the world has been pouring out beautiful remembrances of a life yet more beautifully lived. As I listen to and read them, I can’t help but attend to the language we are using.

Forbearance. Courage. Of the ages.

We complain so often of the abuse of language. Of exaggeration. Of imperfections. But here, while our words will never capture the greatness of such a man’s life and legacy, we witness a true example of why these words exist.

Speaking of words, as I have been reflecting, my thoughts have turned to Afrikaans, which descended from Dutch settlers in South Africa, whose most infamous contribution has been apartheidApartheid joins apart–Dutch for “separate,” borrowed from the French à part, ultimately from the Latin for “to the side”–and the suffix -heid, cognate to English’s own -hood (condition, state, quality), as in childhood.

And speaking of legacy, is this all Afrikaans can claim in English?


Yes, aardvark, holding that special distinction as the first word in the dictionary. Well, abridged dictionaries. It’s the 28th entry in the OED, from my reckoning.

In Afrikaans, aardvark , first attested in English in 1785, literally means “earth pig,” sometimes known as “antbear.” In Dutch, aard- (from aarde) means “earth,” and is so cognate. More on that in my upcoming series on the four classical elements.

Vark means “pig” or “hog” and is cognate to English’s farrow, which once had greater currency as “young pig,” “to bring forth” a young pig as a sow would, or a “litter of pigs.” Farrow comes from the Old English fearh, which, like vark is also related to our word pork. Latin has porcus, Greek has πόρκος. Proto-Germanic has *farkhaz (young pig, boar), and Proto-Indo-European has *porkos.

If I told you that out a bar, you’d probably call BS. Pork and porcus? But th-th-th-that’s all folks. Oh, and if you haven’t talked about etymology at a bar, then you haven’t lived.

Aarde also lives on in the lesser known cousin to the hyena, aardwolf, as well as aardappel, or “earth apple,” the Dutch for potato. The concept is akin to French’s pomme de terre. I love Dutch. Dutch is like English that woke up and forgot where it was for a second. Or vice versa.

Close to the Earth

I expect excoriation: aardvarks, Porky the Pig, barstool etymology, potatoes, and…Mandela?

I don’t know where I heard it from, but, one of the in memorias I came across these past few days stressed how Mandela taught us how we can’t lead from a place of hatred. And from what I’ve been learning from heads of state, journalists, and compatriots about the peerless qualities he demonstrated, you also can’t lead without a sense of humor.

And–even for as much as a person of such character doesn’t seem of this earth–humility.

Humility, from the Latin humilis, or “on the ground,” from humus,  Latin’s own word for “earth.” Close to the earth, on the ground, like the aardvark.

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the four seasons, part III (fall/autumn)

Fast Mash

  • As a name for the third season of the year, fall is favored by American English and autumn by British English, perhaps due to historic separation by the Atlantic Ocean 
  • Originally “fall of the leaf,” fall is from the Germanic-rooted Old English verb, faellan, likely from the Proto-Indo-European *pol; Latin’s fallere (trip, deceive) is related, giving English words like false, fail, or fallible
  • Autumn comes from the Old French autumpne, from Latin’s autumnus; the Latin may be connected to augere, meaning to increase, as crops at harvest do, or from an unknown Etruscan source
  • By the 16th century, both autumn and fall were displacing the original term for the season, harvest, from Old English’s haerfest, which the OED attests in 902 and is probably from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, related to Latin’s carpe diem

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or a few do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, ” Shakespeare plaintively–or persuasively, depending on your perspective–sonneted on man’s impermanence.

But what do we call that time of year?

A little late? I know. Most of the leaves have fallen by now–or, in SoCal, most of us have pulled out sweaters for those bone-chilling, 50-degree days. But, each year, as we swap out Satan for Santa, aren’t we always asking ourselves: What ever happened to Thanksgiving?

Let’s linger over leftovers and talk about harvest. Or what was once called harvest.

Fall & Autumn

This side of the pond, we call the third season of the year fall, as opposed to the autumn of British English. Why did this come to be? Some attribute the difference to the Atlantic Ocean, for both fall and autumn were displacing English’s original word for the season, harvest, in the 16th century, around the time when the British were settling parts of North America. Perhaps certain linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as a preference for fall, settled well. Check out this short Slate article by Forrest Wickman for more on this difference–including a little of bit of British envy.

As first attested in 1545, fall appeared as “fall of the leaf,” mirroring the origin of spring (“spring of the leaf”), which I picked apart earlier.

Fall as a noun–whether of rain, sword, height, or humanity–comes from fall as a verb, handed down from Old English’s feallan, which could mean “to fall,” “fail,” “decay,” or “die.” Through a Proto-Germanic root of *fallan or *fallanan, etymologists trace the Old English verb back to Proto-Indo-European. The Online Etymology dictionary posits *pol, meaning “to fall.” It has some ancient cognates: Armenian p’ul (downfall); Lithuanian puola/pulti (fall); and Old Prussian aupallai (to find; literally, to fall upon). Shipley, however, glosses the Indo-European root as “to slide,” maybe trying to better articulate the connection historical linguistics entertain to the Latin fallere, variously meaning “to cause to fall,” “trip,” “mislead,” or “deceive.”

You might recognize Latin’s fallere in such derivatives as falsefail, faultfallacy, or fallible

Falling, deceiving, dying–down is bad. The sun goes down, ushering in nightfall? Bipedal man falls down, causing injury? Observations of the damage–or death–due to gravity? Perhaps these etymological connections lend support to Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors theorize overarching conceptual metaphors (such as up is good, down is bad) that organize our understanding of our experience–and the language we use to express it.

The OED’s earliest attestation of autumnautumpne–comes from a work of translation by Chaucer in 1374. While its form has shed more sounds than a maple sheds leaves in October, English plucks autumn from Romance names for the seasons: the Old French autompne, in turn from Latin’s autumnussometimes documented as auctumnus.

The origin for autumnus is not certain. Some have proposed a connection to augere (to increase; think augment), whose past participle is auctus (think auction). This does make some agricultural sense, with the increase of crops’ yield at harvest during fall. Or autumn.

Shipley argues for an earlier Latin vertumnus, noting the change from warmth to cold in its relationship to vertere (to turn; think convert, divert, verse, and the many others in the root’s big family). To avoid confusion with the Etruscan god of the seasons, Vertumnus, he continues, the Latin-lipped altered the form of the word.  Indeed, the Romans worshipped a god of the seasons, change, and plant life, named Vertumnus, whose altar may have been inspired by the supreme Etruscan deity, Voltumna.

Arcimboldo’s rendering of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, change, and plant life. Ca. 1590-91.

Autumn may be Etruscan in origin, but the connection between Voltumna, vertere, and autumn is probably due to folk etymology. In folk etymology, the form or sound of a word, particularly a foreign or obscure word, is changed to accord with ostensibly commonsensical, though mistaken, connections to known words. Click the link for some fun examples of folk etymology.


While the relationship between autumn and augment may be unclear, it does point us to harvest, which, in the form of haerfast, named the season between summer and winter as bar back as 902. Harvest may once have encapsulated the entire season, but, with rise of fall and autumn, it narrowed to refer to “the time of gathering of crops,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, then to the action of gathering, and, yet later, to the product of gathering.

Speaking of “that time of year,” poems about autumn and fall–and English really does have a great repertory of them–may remind us of life’s transience, urging us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (I know, I think that one’s a bit more vernal, but you get the idea.)

Or, as Horace put it, carpe diem. To “seize the day,” or, better yet, pluck the day while it is ripe. To pick from the tree, heavy with apples. Through the Proto-Germanic *harbitas and some classic Grimm’s law, harvest ultimately is yielded from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, meaning “gather,” “pluck,” or “harvest.” Latin has carpere, which could also mean “to cut” or “divide.” Greek has καρπός, or the product of plucking, “fruit.” And speaking of cutting, Sanskrit has krpana for sword and krpani for “shears”

So often, we talk about taking a step back during the holiday season to see the big picture of all the sales and events, all the gatherings and obligations, all the recipes and rituals. (I could make an argument that Black Friday represents a new form of crop gathering and ritualistic celebration of bounty, but I’ll stick to etymology.)

I think etymology helps us to do this stepping back. The origin of words like fall and harvest have an immediacy, a salience, a simplicity, or a literalness that all of our myriad, modern goings-on seem to cloud up.

Leaves fall.mCrops ripen. Crops are picked. Life. Death. Nourishment. Change.

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