Henry Hitchings: What is myrrh anyway?

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The Independent Culture

I was brought up to say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Christmas". "Happy" was supposed to be kept back for birthdays and the New Year. But now, I've noticed, my mother insists on "Happy Christmas". Challenged about this apparent volte-face, she cites the tweeness of "Merry", an adjective which, as she points out, has also been tarnished by its association with drunkenness.

The history of merry suggests another reason for finding it inappropriate. Merry is the modern form of the Old English myrige, meaning "pleasant". So far, OK. But further back its roots are in Sanskrit, the ancient ceremonial language of India, in which muhur meant "for a moment" or "suddenly". Something of this endures, I think, in the texture of the English word and in its archaic offshoots merry-begot, a term for a bastard child, and merry-bout, slang for a brisk sexual coming-and-going. Merry retains an air of the blithely yet brutishly ephemeral. Now that I reflect on it, I'm sympathetic to my mother's case – a sure way of ensuring we enjoy a happy Christmas.

Whereas merry is a word that perhaps only offers up a hint of its long past, much of the language of Christmas has a distinctly venerable look. Take, for instance, wassail. The word embalms the Old English salutation wes hal, an instruction to "be in good health". It has been used since around 1300 of the spiced ale drunk on Christmas Eve, and since 1600 as a synonym for "partying" or "carousing". Its historical interest lies, though, in the Normans having found it peculiarly redolent of the English view of the world, which is to say a kind of hard-drinking parochialism. Some sources suggest that the night before the Battle of Hastings the Normans prayed while the English stayed up boozing and crying out "wes hal". Wassail is a word tainted by Norman contempt for Anglo-Saxon licentiousness. In passing, I should add that if you see a pub called The Pig and Whistle (there's one in Benidorm), its name is a corruption of Byggen Wassail, a festival that used to be held to celebrate the barley harvest.

Older even than wassail is yule. Yule logs, mistletoe and holly are all pre-Christian appurtenances of the season, and yule is one of many Christmas words that reek of pagan practices. Its root is the Old English geol, linked to the Norse term jol which denoted a 12-day period of feasting around the time of the winter solstice.

Rather less obvious is the pagan past of carol. Because of the content of most of the familiar Christmas carols, we tend to think of carols as intrinsically Christian. Yet although carol has been used of Christmas hymns for roughly half ' a millennium, the word was current for a couple of centuries before that. When caroling comes up in Chaucer, it's something almost sexual. Carol derives via French from Latin, relating to either the word for a garland or the name for a dance accompanied by a flute.

Of course, much of our Christmas vocabulary is Christian. We all know about the three wise men who brought the infant Christ precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (We also know that these wise men are sometimes called Magi, which was originally a technical term in Latin for Persians who belonged to the priestly class.) In Monty Python's Life of Brian the mother of the Messiah asks the wise men the quite reasonable question, "What is myrrh, anyway?" Told that it is "a valuable balm", she is not impressed, and when she ushers the wise men away she says, "Thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but don't worry too much about the myrrh next time." As a child, I found it was the myrrh that most impressed me – even though I once embarrassingly got it muddled with catarrh. Etymologically, it's this aromatic gum that is the most interesting of the three. Gold is a good solid Germanic word. Frankincense for its part is simply franc encens – literally, in Old French, "incense of high quality". The story of myrrh is less straightforward. It may get its name from Smyrna, the Turkish town now called Izmir, where it was believed to be sourced, or from a word for a ritual medicine in the Akkadian language of ancient Mesopotamia.

Yet for all the curious poetry of myrrh, my infant self was more taken with seasonal ornaments and the opportunity to gorge on sweets. Part of Christmas – especially as promoted by that great inventor of Christmas traditions, Charles Dickens – is an affirmation of one's inner child. For a short while we embrace kitsch items such as baubles – a blend of babyll, a medieval word for something that oscillates, and babel, a term in Old French for a child's plaything. The bauble's familiar accompaniment tinsel gets its name from Old French, too, but ultimately derives from the Latin scintilla meaning "spark", which is also, thanks to a bit of creative misspelling, the source of stencil.

Tinsel and mistletoe notwithstanding, the highlight of my early Christmasses was chipping the icing off the cake to get at the marzipan underneath. Little did I know that I'd later savour the word as much as the thing. For marzipan has an especially odd etymology. The city of Martaban in Lower Burma, now known as Mottama, was once noted for the jars it used for exporting sweetmeats. The fame of these jars led to the vulgar Latin coinage maczapanum, meaning a box for storing jewels – and later a place for keeping confectionery. Over time, the sense narrowed further: first to the confectionery itself, and then to a specific kind of confectionery.

The way we spell marzipan is indebted to German, and the Germans, I've noticed, do Christmas deliciously, with their Stollen and carp and stuffed goose. Sadly, we've yet to latch on to the delightful German slang for Christmas Eve, which is Dickbauch – a word that means, with more than a touch of both the happy and the merry, "pot belly".

Henry Hitchings won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize 2008 for his book 'The Secret Life of Words' (John Murray)