In past holiday editions, I’ve written etymology columns on food, presents, and other, more spiritual, words related to the upcoming holiday season. This year, I thought we’d look at some of the more fantastic or magical parts of this, well, magical time of year.
As this is a season where we like to recognize those who have helped those less fortunate than us, perhaps we should talk about those helpers without whom there’d be no presents: elves.
Elf is an Old English word that comes from Germanic folklore about the goblin-like creatures. In much of northern European culture, though, an elf was not the friendly, humble, hard-working beings. An elf could be a fairy or even an incubus.
Elf comes from the Proto-Germanic albiz, and while we’re not sure of its origins beyond that, some linguists think it might be related to the Proto-Indo-European albho, meaning white, as in albino. These white goblins were originally quite malicious in folklore as seen in other iterations of the word elf. For instance, the Old English aelfadl meant nightmare, and their word for hiccup was aelfsogoda—they believed that elves caused hiccups.
To tell the truth, I think I believe that, too. They’re so weird.
Less weird, perhaps, are the angels that sit atop many of our Christmas trees.
No, I take that back. Angels, when you think about it, are just as strange.
The modern spelling of angel, dated to the 14th century, is a blend of the Old English engel and the Old French angele. Both words come from the Late Latin angelus; the Romans had borrowed it from the Greek angelos.
While we typically think of an angel as a spiritual being, in the original Greek, it literally meant a messenger or envoy. Its divine nature was applied to the word as the Old Testament Hebrew was translated into Greek, translating the Hebrew mal’akh, meaning a messenger of God, into angaros, a word related to angelos.
Then, in the 16th century, when Christians started decorating what we’ve come to know as the Christmas tree, they added angels, which were typically made of glass, to the top to represent Gabriel announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds.
Nutcrackers are another popular, though less religious, holiday decoration, but equally magical if we give heed to the Tchaikovsky ballet often performed during the holiday season.
Nut has a pretty simple history: it comes from the Middle English note, which developed from the Old English hnutu and Proto-Germanic hnut. The PIE root, kneu, is also seen in the word nucleus,
hich, like a nut is to a seed, is the central core of an atom.
Likewise, crack’s simple history derives from the Proto-Germanic krakojan, probably a word coined to imitate the sound of something being cracked open. But by the 15th century, a crack could also be the blaring sound of a trumpet or even a fart. I’ve yet to see the nutcracker industry tackle that one.
The holiday magic behind the nutcracker originates in an 1816 story by the Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffmann called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Then, in 1844, Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers,” basically stole the story from Hoffman, translating it into French and changing a few details here and there, and published it under a new title: “The Nutcracker.” It’s from Dumas’s story that Tchaikovsky developed his ballet, coming soon as a Kodiak Arts Council production in December.
Dumas’s plagiarism aside, which, frankly speaking, was a popular thing to do in the 19th century, the story of the toy nutcracker come to life has been enchanting audiences for over 100 years now.
Equally enchanting, and probably just as plagiarized, is the magical story of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who first appeared as a Christmas promotion from the department store Montgomery Ward (remember those catalogues?).
Rudolph is a German word that literally means “fame wolf.” Yes, I know Rudolph isn’t a wolf, but it’s a name that medieval Germans invented, originally Hrodulf. The first part of the word, hruod, means fame or glory, and is combined with the Germanic wulfaz to produce the name.
It was likely a name given to an authority figure, to honor their wolf-like nature, perhaps. But wolf could have also meant devil, which makes the name a little more nefarious. More like Gmork, the villainous wolf in the German tale The Neverending Story.
The American reindeer, Rudolph, doesn’t strike me as devilish. He seems good-natured like Santa’s elves, and the angel Gabriel, and the Nutcracker. Which is the point, it’s what we’re supposed to aspire to during the holiday season: goodwill, helpfulness, self-sacrifice.
But still, just like elves and wolves of lore, there may be some dark, devilish magic below.