Tradition is an important part of the holiday season. There is comfort in sameness and repetition, especially if this repetition is of things we enjoy. However, too often during this time of year, because we are busy or accustomed to our customs, we can lose sight of the meaning in what it is we are doing. Sometimes we find ourselves just going through the motions without thinking about the names of the things we eat and drink, or without realizing what certain words (that only seem to be heard in carols) actually mean.
For instance, you may enjoy a frothy glass of eggnog, but what is nog? Nog is the unfamiliar part of eggnog, so qualifying nog with "egg", making eggnog a type of nog, doesn't exactly clear up matters. Nog was a type of strong ale that was mixed with eggs to make the festive drink. These days, there are still eggs in eggnog along with milk, cream and spices like nutmeg.
Here I present some information about a few other puzzling holiday terms.
Bells on bobtails ring,
Making spirits bright...
What is a bobtail? Quite simply it is a short tail, which makes sense in the context of the song, because when on a sleigh ride "in a one-horse open sleigh" you don't want a huge, long horsetail in your face. Here the word bobtail can be taken as signifying the entire horse, a literary device called synecdoche. In synecdoche a part stands in for the whole, like when a sailing ship is just referred to in a poem as "masts" or a baseball pitcher is just called "the arm." Interestingly, bobtail shows up in an other piece of Americana, the song "Camptown Races":
Bet my money on the bobtail nag,
Somebody bet on the gray.
Here bobtail is an adjective, picking out which nag, or old horse, is being referred to. "Bobtail nag" is a reference to the entire horse and is not an example of synecdoche.
Latkes are fried potato pancakes which, like eggnog, often contain some egg to act as a binder. A bit of a etymological controversy surrounds these delectable treats. Latke is from Yiddish, a language influenced by Russian, and Russian latka means "pastry," so some connection between the two would seem to make sense. An alternate word history for latke, however, has it deriving from the Greek word for olive, "elaia" which would follow from the mandate to fry them in oil in observance of Chanukah, when latkes are traditionally eaten.
Here we come a-wassailing
among the leaves so green.
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Wassail is a wish for good health, from Old Norse ves heill, "be healthy."
Often the people doing the wassailing were people in need, not just carolers celebrating the season. These singers hoped that the more fortunate would give them a drink from the wassail bowl, or something to eat. The later verses of the song spell this out and may inspire another potent sentiment that is often conjured during the holidays — generosity:
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children
Whom you have seen before.
It is of course important to remember the role that charity can play during this season of giving, and this verse is made poignant by putting a face to the beggars. Not only have the fortunate seen these people before, but there is a silent reminder that, as members of the same community, the faces of those less fortunate will be seen again.
It can be enlightening to uncover the strange in the familiar. Too influenced by the great television special, for years I thought Rudolph's nose actually glowed. The song clearly states that his nose is very shiny and "you would even say it glowed", but it doesn't say it really lights up — that was license taken by other interpreters. Like the revelation of that reindeer's guiding light, it is important to keep discovering the new in things we thought we understood.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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