Perspective: Seeking the Real Meanings of Christmas; Alexander Tulloch Casts an Etymologist's Eye at Christmas

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexander Tulloch

For linguists Christmas is a fascinating time of year. Hidden away behind the crass commercialisation and nauseating sentimentalism there are gems of linguistic information for anyone who has the time and the inclination to do a little research and flick through one or two etymological dictionaries.

For those interested in language the derivations of the words we associate with the festive season can be as interesting as any of those quizzes and massive crosswords which suddenly appear in the press about this time.

Take the word 'angel' for instance. This supposedly winged creature that frightened the living daylights out of the poor shepherds as they went about their lawful business has a very prosaic etymology. The word has come into English from the Greek angelos which meant nothing more exciting than 'messenger.' The same word shows up in another clerical guise as 'evangelist' (Greek eu 'good' and angelos) who is just a messenger who brings the good news. The direct translation of these elements into Anglo-Saxon gave god 'good' and spell 'news' which evolved into the word we now recognise as 'gospel.' The star in the east which led the Magi to Bethlehem also has a history which is easily overlooked. It is a word with direct links to German der Stern, Latin stella and the Greek aster (as seen in 'astrology' 'astronomy' etc).

But linguists have also traced the word back even further in time and believe that the word entered European languages as an Indo-European root meaning 'to sprinkle' 'to strew.' The link here is with the ancients who believed that stars 'sprinkled' light down from heaven onto the earth. The same concept is seen in other cognate words such as 'straw' and 'street.' And what about the Magi? They were wise men from what is now Iran whose name derives from Persian word for 'sorcerer.' This word then appeared in the Greek expression magikhe tekhne 'socererers' art' and hence into English and gave us words such as 'magic' and 'magician. …