17 December 2010

Christmastime is here...

I recognize i tend to go off on miniature rants, or at least take more of a negative spin on language as i find it addressed in life around me. In light of the season (as well as taking into account my thoughts my thoughts on a typographic video of Stephen Fry), i thought it would be nice to elucidate and illuminate the meanings of words we toss around willy-nilly at the end of the year, often without knowing what in angels we heard on high we are talking about.

Advent: It comes from the Middle English, from the Latin word adventus which means 'arrival;' it's used to mark the arrival of Jesus as a baby. Quite appropriately, it's also used in some circles to talk about his return. Seems Jesus is all about the advent.

Myrrh: Most of us don't even know how to spell this one, let alone what it is. (I had to use google's autocorrect to get the proper spelling.) It's an aromatic resin that comes from trees found in eastern Africa and Arabia (the around called the Horn of Africa). The Egyptians used it on their mummies, but most everyone else considered it a medicine, equal to its weight in gold.

Frankincense: Like myrrh, frankincense is a resin from a tree, also from the Horn of Africa. It is used as an incense, hence its name, and because the smell is said to represent life, it's often used to anoint newborns or individuals entering a new spiritual phase of life.

Yule: Comes from the Old Norse 'jōl', a pagan midwinter festival. Still called 'Jul' by Scandinavians today.

Christmas: The origin of the word is in Old English, that language that predates the English as we know it. Christmas, or Cristes mæsse, literally means 'Christ's Mass.' There is probably not a singular source for the cause of celebration on December 25. There were a plethora of winter feasts during the winter months: Roman Saturnalia, Scandinavian Yule, Germanic feasts and celebrations. Most pointed was a later Roman festival which took place on the specific date we now take to be Christmas Day. It was a celebration called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and it centered around 'the birthday of the unconquered sun,' or as we call it, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The way the Romans they saw things, Sol invictus, the 'unconquered sun,' would be born anew and take back the heavens, slowly reclaiming winter's kingdom. Some early scholars link the festivals with the birth of Jesus, calling him the 'unconquered' one.

Nativity: It means, at its simplest, 'the process of being born.' So this isn't really a holiday word, except when we add 'the' to the beginning of it. My own nativity was in September, and my roommate's was in June. There might not be Christmas in July, but nativity in July, very possible.

Noel: This is the French word for Christmas. It comes from the Latin natalis, meaning 'birth.' When it's not capitalized, it also refers to a Christmas carol. Not sure how that fits in with 'birth.'

Grinch: Invented by Dr. Seuss specifically for his beloved Christmas story, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' it refers to someone who's a killjoy. BONUS: Seuss also invented the word 'nerd' for his story 'If I Ran the Zoo.'

Merry Yule, and happy New Year to all.

In case this wasn't enough on language, a recent poll described 'whatever' as the most irritating word. Discuss.

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