linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: Christmas, Noel and Yule

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

This post from 2013 looked at three words that refer to the Christmas festival. It is part of our Stories behind Words series. You can find other posts by searching for ‘Stories behind Words’ in the blog search box.

The oldest of the three is Yule, from Old English geól, which meant Christmas Day or Christmastime, and corresponds to an Old Norse word jól, which was a pagan winter feast lasting twelve days. The earliest citation of this word in the OED is from a work by the 8th century English monk Bede, although the first references to the specifically Christmas meaning date from the beginning of the tenth century. It survives today in the somewhat archaic word Yuletide as well as in the yule log, originally a large log burned at Christmas but now more usually referring to a rolled up chocolate cake that resembles such a log.

Noel or Noël comes ultimately from the Latin natalis via Anglo-Norman and Middle French. Originally an exclamation of joy at the birth of Christ, in the middle ages it was also used to refer to the Christmas period. Like carol (and holly) it has found another life as a first name, especially for those born during the Christmas period, but otherwise is now found only in Christmas carols and as a greeting on Christmas cards:

c1410 H. Lovelich Merlin (1904) I. l. 6870 Now cometh the feste of nowel, jn whiche the goode Lord was bore.
c1450 in R. L. Greene Early Eng. Carols (1935) 18 (MED), Nowel, nowel, in this halle, Make merye, I prey you alle.

Christmas comes from Old English and means “the mass of Christ”. The earliest citations come from the early 12th century and it has completely superseded its rivals as the standard term for the festival celebrated on 25th December, as well as the period immediately before and after it. So three different words with three very different origins, all referring to the same thing.

Merry Christmas!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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