Spelacchio, Yankee Swap, and Boxing Day: Some holiday etymologies

Over on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I’ve written some pieces that will get you in the holiday spirit.

For my latest Weekly Word Watch, I featured the Italian word spelacchio:

The official Christmas tree of the city of Rome, imported from the Italian Alps at a cost of over £42,000, has been shedding its needles, so much so that locals have nicknamed the not-so-evergreen evergreen spelacchio, meaning ‘mangy’ or ‘threadbare’. The word appears to derive from roots meaning ‘out of hair’ (pelo, hair, cf. depilatory).

Spelacchio inspired a hashtag – even its own Twitter account.

 And just as quickly as it was a term of derision, spelacchio became a term of endearment, with Romans leaving Christmas cards for the ‘balding’ tree. How very 2017, spelacchio. How very 2017, indeed.

I also explored the origins of the names of popular gift exchanges, like Yankee Swap, which has a surprising connection to Walt Whitman:

In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.

Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)

Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.

Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.

Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

Read the rest of the article for the lexical history of the Secret Santa and White Elephant traditions. Here’s some extra content that didn’t make the original article:

Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle

Secret Santa appears to be an American phrase and custom adopted elsewhere in the world. You may also hear the exchange going by the equally alliterative but less culturally connotative Secret Snowflake.

And in Ireland, for example, you may hear colleagues conducting a Kris Kringle or Kris Kindle around the office. These alternative appellations for a secret santa originate in German words like Christkind’l, literally ‘Christ child’, who’s the seasonal gift-giver in many European and Latin American countries.

Some German-speaking immigrants to early Pennsylvania in the US spoke a dialect that became Pennsylvanian Dutch. They had Chris-krinkle, a Santa Claus figure whose name comes from Christkind’l and becomes Kris Kringle by1830.

Boxing Day

Finally, a little Christmas bonus — and this one to educate the Americans. Observed as a bank holiday the first weekday after Christmas Day, the UK-originating Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs. The OED first cites it in 1833 and roots the name in the tradition of the Christmas box, dated to 1611 in a gloss on a similar French custom, tirelire. This container, or box, historically collected tips for various servants and apprentices. It was often an earthenware vessel, broken open when full and its contents shared among workers.

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From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin”

In one of my recent Weekly Word Watches for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I highlighted bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose valuation continues to skyrocket.

As I explain in the article, the bit in bitcoin – a coinage attributed to its mysterious creator(s) Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 – was shortened from binary digit in 1948. Binary digits are those 1’s and 0’s that make our computers work.

And thanks to the success of bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies have also branded themselves as coins, such as Dogecoin and Peercoin, suggesting -coin is becoming a productive combining signifying a digital currency.

But what of the word coin itself? Its origins transports us back to some of the earliest days of writing.

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Not an actual bitcoin. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin””

Getting up to speed with Mashed Radish

A few updates are long overdue.

Last Sunday, I had a piece in the UK’s Sunday Express defending the much and wrongly maligned like. Like, you know, like. As I argue:

Like isn’t a sign that we’re dumbing down English. It’s a sign of just how, like, sophisticated our language is.

Continue reading “Getting up to speed with Mashed Radish”

Some etymological news and updates from Mashed Radish

In lieu of a feature word origin today, I wanted to point you to some of my other etymological goings-on around the web. I’m very pleased to announce that I have two new series on the Oxford Dictionaries blog debuting this week.

Continue reading “Some etymological news and updates from Mashed Radish”

Metymology? Mashed Radish turns three

Oh yeah: I missed a few important milestones recently.

Mashed Radish turned three earlier this month. Politics inspired quite a few posts – Donald Trump especially – this past year. While politics may divide us, a shared love of words certainly brings us together. Like animals, which also prompted quite a lot of writing. You know, I think this blog could definitely do with more animal posts.

I’ve also reached over 10,000 followers. Wow. Gosh. Thanks, everyone, for your continued – or new – interest, readership, comments, and support.

Speaking of support, I’ve a third milestone comping up which I’ll be sure not to miss: my second wedding anniversary. I really need to thank my wife for all the support she’s given and sacrifices (yes, etymologies have their costs) she’s made for this project.

Now, how’d the first two pass me by? Well, I moved to Dublin, for one. For another, my head’s been absolutely stuffed with Shakespeare, whose complete works I’ve been reading and writing about at Shakespeare Confidential. I’ve also been regularly contributing to Slate’s Lexicon ValleyStrong Language, and Oxford Dictionaries. Etymologies open doors to the past, as I like to say. And, if three years is any measure, to the future as well.

But I can’t sign off without a word origin, can I? So, how about a quick etymology of etymology?

Etymology

We actually have evidence of the word etymology in a Latin form in Old English, though we see it Anglicized around the late 1300s, early 1400s . English gets the word in part from French (ethimologie) and in part directly from Latin (etymologia). Latin, in turn, borrowed the word from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etymologia). If you’ll allow me to jump over some intermediary derived forms, the Greek ultimately joins ἐτεός (eteos, “true”) and λόγος (logos, “word”). Some think the Greek eteos is related to the Old English soð (“truth”), which, if you’ve been reading your Shakespeare, you might recognize in soothsayer or the mild oath For sooth! 

Historically then, we can understand etymology as the analysis of a word on the basis of its literal, or true, meaning. We should be careful not to commit the etymological fallacy, however, which posits that only the original meaning of a word is its right sense. Wrong. Words change. That’s in part why I love etymology. But we don’t want to be too, too careful, because I think we can glean insights in those ancient meanings still relevant to us today – and because I wouldn’t have a blog with a third anniversary to mark!

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Flying, flap-eared pigs?

I wanted to point you to some other pieces I have around the web. You’re forewarned: Some strong language lies ahead.

A few weeks back, I had a post on the OxfordWords blog: Pigdoghog, and other etymologies from the farm.” As I note:

We’ve left the farm and have wandered into the woods to discover where some very basic and common animal words came from – fundamental words like dog and pig, which number among some of the first children learn to read, even say.

We just don’t really know where this group of everyday words comes from, which is nothing short of fascinating.

I also have two pieces up on Strong Language. The first is “When fucks fly.” In this post, I ask the big questions: “What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly?”

Today, I published a piece that grew out of my new project, Shakespeare Confidential. This piece, “Great Moments in Swearing: The Taming of the Shrew,” gives you, you flap-eared knave, some sweary tips:

So, if you’re looking for some choice words, take a page from Petruccio’s playbook: Add some color, er, choler. Just avoid this whole “taming” and “shrew” business.

Stay tuned for more etymology and, if you’re following Shakespeare Confidential, my post on The Taming of the Shrew.

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Language “for the birds”: New guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

I have a new guest post up on Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog. This one is called “Language ‘for the birds’: The origins of ‘jargon’, ‘cant’, and other forms of gobbledygook.” Here is a sample:

‘Infarction’? ‘Heretofore’? ‘Problematize’CathexisDisrupt? Doctors have their medicalese, lawyers their legalese, scholars their academese. Psychologists can gabble in psychobabble, coders in technobabble. For people outside these professions, all their jargon seems ‘for the birds’ — all too true, if we look to the origin of the word jargon and its common synonyms. Let’s cut through all the jargoncantpatoisargot, and gobbledygook with a look at the origins of these terms naming the specialized languages used by particular professions or social groups.

Jargon 

The downsizing or leveraging of corporate speak may be a modern phenomenon, but English has been prattling jargon for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites jargon as early as the mid-14thcentury, naming ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’. But a usage a few decades later — in Chaucer’s late 14th-century Merchants Tale – suggests the word’s etymology: “He was al coltish ful of ragerye / And ful of Iargon as a flekked pie”. Full of jargon as a flecked magpie: no, that’s not the fustian speech of a pretentious intellectual, but ‘the chattering or twittering of birds.’ By 1651, the OED records jargon’s contemptuous sense of ‘any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms’, citing Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

The English jargon derives from the Old French jargon, also describing the ‘warbling of birds’. The Old French jargon was recorded in other forms, such as gargon, which may look a little familiar if you’ve ever gargled any mouthwash. For many etymologists take jargon back to the same source as gargle (and, due to their mouthy spouts on their cathedral roosts, gargoyle): garg-, a root imitating or echoing the sound of noises made in the throat. I wouldn’t recommend any mouthwash for your boss’s jargon any time soon.

Head on over to the blog to read the full post and learn what cantpatois, argot, and gobbledygook also have to do with birds. Be sure to check out the other great content on the OxfordWords blog and the always incredible Oxford Dictionaries.

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OxfordWords guest post: culprit

Be sure to visit the OxfordWords blog, where I’ve guest-authored another post. This time, it’s on origin of culprit:

Amnesiadisguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit  At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpaculpableexculpateand the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.” One would suspect that culprit is the same, yet we should never be so presumptuous when it comes to English etymologyCulprit is indeed connected to Latin’s culpa, but it just can’t quite keep its story straight.

Read “The curious case of culprit” in full.

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