December 23, 2015

Case File #015.12.23: WASSAIL

You've heard the song every December for as long as you can remember. And if you're big on Christmas, you've probably even sung the song yourself. But every year around Christmastime, you still can't help but ask yourself, “What the hell does wassail even mean, anyway?” Well, as the lyrics to the old carol demonstrate, the word in question can be used as both a verb and a noun, and since the noun came first in this etymological family tree, we might as well begin there. The noun wassail started out in Old English as two words: was hal, which was a phrase derived from the Old Norse ves heill and was used as a salutation that basically meant “be in good health” or “be prosperous.” By the beginning of the twelfth century, the English phrase had evolved to become waes haeil (sometimes spelled wes heil), and instead of being a greeting or an acknowledgment of another's departure, it was now used as a drinking-party toast that meant “to your good health” or “to your good fortune.” It took barely another century for the two-word phrase to merge into wassail—the spelling of which varied greatly at first—and by circa 1300, the noun had taken on the secondary meaning of “the drink used for toasting, especially the spiced ale used in Christmas celebrations” and wassail was also gaining currency as a verb meaning “to take part in a wassail or a wassail-like toast.” Around 1600, our old friend Shakespeare, who was writing Hamlet at the time, gave the noun a tertiary meaning, “riotous drinking or drunken revelry,” and soon after, the verb took on the related secondary sense of “to engage in drunken revelry.” But it wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that the verb came to be associated with caroling at Christmastime, and this was likely because many carolers, in an effort to keep warm as they went singing from door to door, brought with them some warm wassail or some similar alcoholic beverage and tended to get a little rowdy as the night—and the drink—wore on. (Some sources say that it was the people on the receiving end of the songs and well-wishing, not the carolers, who provided the warmed beverage.) When the nineteenth century rolled around, however, alcohol became less a part of the caroling activities each year, and the verb wassail thus came to mean simply “to go from house to house and sing carols at Christmas.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

December 9, 2015

Case File #015.12.09: SLEIGH

The noun sleigh first came into use around 1700, only back then it was spelled slay and was initially linguistic currency solely among North American English speakers. A few etymologists and lexicographers credit the coining of the word to Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, as apparently the noun's first recorded use appears in Sewall's writings about his involvement in the witch trials and his early career in Massachusetts jurisprudence. But regardless of who created the word, experts all agree that it is essentially an Anglicized borrowing of the Dutch noun slee, which is a shortened form of slede (meaning, of course, “sled”) that itself evolved from the Middle Dutch sledde. (Incidentally, the English noun sled, which entered the lexicon in the early fourteenth century, is also a descendant of the Middle Dutch sledde, though a more direct one than its cousin sleigh.) The verb sense of sleigh, meaning “to drive or travel in a sleigh,” appeared as early as the 1720s, but the modern spelling of both noun and verb didn't appear until later: the contemporary form of the noun was first recorded in 1768, and it took another century for the spelling of the verb to follow suit.

©2015 Michael R. Gates