What do El Niño and Christmas have in common? It’s not just the unseasonable weather much of the US is experiencing this holiday, though my drought-stricken state of California is getting a much needed White Christmas in the Sierras. No, this weather pattern and Christian holiday also share a crib, etymologically speaking.
Spanish speakers will readily recognize el niño as “the child” or “the boy.” In the case of the proper noun El Niño, it’s a very special little boy, at least to Christians: El Niño de Navidad, the Christ Child.
But to many people who don’t speak Spanish, El Niño means some weird weather. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains it: “The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific.”
But what does this have to do with baby Jesus? South Americans – and many sources specify Peruvian fishermen as early as the 1600s – noted the warm waters of the weather phenomenon occurring during December. Hence, the association between the weather event and Christmas.
Christmastime, then, can bring Dos Niños.
As for the origin of the Spanish noun niño (and its feminine form, of course, niña)? Etymologists are pretty sure it’s ultimately a baby or nursery word, expressing the noises babies first babble or the sounds parents and caretakers present to their children. Like mama and papa, which the excellent linguist John McWhorter recently had a fascinating piece on over at The Atlantic.
I think it’s neat – if, of course, arbitrary, given the accidents of language and society – that two so very complex systems affecting so many millions of people across the globe – one meteorological and climatological, the other cultural and religious – share this little bit of baby talk: niño.
Well, it’s been another great year of word origins. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support. I’m looking forward to another year ahead. It’s a presidential election year in the US, so I’m sure it’ll be a good one.
The Mashed Radish will be back in 2016. Happy Holidays!