I think I'm finally getting the hang of "the Holidays" as they concern this column. It hasn't been easy. For years the Holidays not only crept up on me, but tippy-toed right past me as I sat, snoozing peacefully, at my desk. Last year I actually managed to rouse myself in time to explain several "holiday words," including "mistletoe," but since two people have asked me about "mistletoe" just in the last week, I've decided to repeat my explanation of that word.
Like many people, I have a dismaying inability to remember jokes, but I heard a joke when I was about 12 years old which is so utterly stupid that I've never forgotten it. Ready? OK, if athletes get athlete's foot, what do astronauts get? That's right -- mistletoe.
Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines "mistletoe" rather dismissively as "a Eurasian parasitic shrub," most of us view this innocent little plant in a warmer light. Mistletoe was an element in European mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years before the advent of Christianity, and like many "pagan" traditions, mistletoe was eventually integrated into Christmas tradition, although it has no religious significance in itself. Today a small sprig of mistletoe is often hung in a doorway, tradition dictating that anyone caught under the sprig must submit to a kiss. Those pagan traditions certainly have staying power -- even as I write this, a commercial on the radio promises that a haircut from a certain "salon" will provoke reactions from the opposite sex equivalent to wearing a "mistletoe hat."
Tracing the origin of "mistletoe" is a bit of a problem -- it's a very old word, and all its precursors meant "mistletoe" as well. But if we go all the way back to Old English, there are some hints. "Mistle" came from the same root that gave us "mist," and "tan" meant "twig," giving us "twig of the mist" as a root meaning. "Twig of the mist" -- the fact that one little word, thousands of years old, could contain such a beautiful image is a wonderful gift in itself, don't you think?
In our last outing together, we began to explore some of the terms associated with "the Holiday Season." I'm rather proud of myself for remembering to do this in time this year. In fact, I'm considering turning this column into an "all-holiday" feature, with the motto, "You give me space in your newspaper, I'll give you holidays you never heard of." So I'll have to get these Yuletide words out of the way quickly -- St. David's Day is coming up fast.
Now there's a holiday word right there -- "yuletide." "Yule," of course, is also found in the phrase "yule log," traditionally a very large log burned in the hearth at Christmas, or, more likely these days, seen burning in a hearth on TV. I vividly remember when one of the New York City TV stations began broadcasting a 24-hour Yule Log show in the 1970's. Everyone found the concept unbelievably vulgar at the time, but now it seems almost quaint -- compared to the Christmas episode of "Baywatch," certainly.
"Yule," like many of our Christmas terms, dates back to "pagan" traditions in pre-Christian Europe, and didn't originally have anything to do with Christmas. The word "yule" comes from the Old English "geol," which came in turn from the Norse "jol," a pre-Christian midwinter festival. The Norse "jol" may be related to an ancient Indo-European root meaning "to go around," in this case referring to the "turn" of the year.
The "tide" in "Yuletide" comes from the Old English "tid," meaning "division of time," and in the case of "yuletide" means simply "time or season." If we wish someone "good tidings" or hear the phrase "tidings of great joy," we are harking back to a related Old Icelandic word meaning "news or events."
And now I must bow out and wish all my readers good tidings and a Happy New Year. I have to run out and buy a calendar for next year -- one with all the holidays marked in letters so large even I won't miss them.
Holiday Gift Books
Every year about this time, I join all my fellow citizens in a tradition that brings us together in a celebration of glad tidings and good cheer. I am speaking, of course, of the Annual Holiday Shopping Frenzy. Today, in an attempt to be even more helpful than I usually am, I offer two suggestions for gifts sure to gladden the heart of any wordlover on your list.
First up is the new "Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology" (HarperCollins, $50.00). Based on the unabridged Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology published in 1988, the new "Concise" covers the origins of more than 21,000 words common in American English. It also, praise be, does so in an extremely lucid manner, with short, clear entries for each word and none of the confusing symbols and typographical hoopla that make looking up words in other dictionaries so tiresome at times. This is a very solid, authoritative volume that makes for fascinating browsing.
Next, if someone on your list has already demonstrated a low tolerance for the snake-oil salesmen and feather merchants who will dominate the political landscape in the coming election year, he or she is bound to love the new Revised Edition of Hugh Rawson's "Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doublespeak" (Crown, $25.00). Mr. Rawson has a marvelously sharp eye (and tongue) when it comes to linguistic nonsense. From the multitudinous military meanings of the vague term "situation" to how your holiday turkey ended up with "drumsticks" (hint -- the Victorians considered the word "leg" to be salacious), Mr. Rawson punctures balderdash balloons by the dozens. Furthermore, Mr. Rawson demonstrates that many words currently considered "vulgar" were themselves originally invented as euphemisms for earlier "vulgarities," giving us euphemisms piled on top of euphemisms. If hearing the phrase "differently-abled" sets anyone you know to shouting at the television (as it does me), a gift of this book will be a sure-fire hit.
Dear Evan: Midland-Walwyn, a brokerage house, has the marketing slogan, "Blue Chip Thinking", which is intended, I presume, to mean that they offer stable, steady, high returns. (As opposed to their competition which offers volatile, unpredictable, low returns?) At any rate, what is the origin of the expression "blue chip"? Blue chip stocks are typically thought to be the issues floated by the large, reliable, good-return companies -- historically, the General Motors, IBM, Dow Chemical, etc. (bell-wethers all). (What is, of course, ironic is that the blue chips of the world's stock exchanges are in fact behaving anything like blue chips). -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
I have a startling revelation to make. Of course, my last startling revelation (that I'd decided to chuck it all and ship out on a tramp steamer bound for the Isle of Langerhans) didn't quite pan out, but I'm not a quitter. Anyway, my startling revelation is that I've never owned a single share of stock in anything. Not that I'm opposed to owning stock in principle, you understand -- if you have a share or two to spare, I'd be glad to give it a whirl. I just keep forgetting to pick up any of my own.
I'd be willing to bet (an especially apt figure of speech, as it turns out) that those "blue chip" companies would rather not be asked where the term "blue chip" itself comes from. The phrase dates back to 1904, and comes from the blue chips used as the (everyone sitting down?) ... highest denomination chips in poker games. Poker, as in gambling, as in bet your money and lose your shirt. "Blue chip" stocks today may be the most stable and valuable stocks, but the folks who started using the expression on the Stock Exchange evidently were well aware that the similarities between their enterprise and a high-stakes poker game ran deep.
Dear Evan: We had dropped off the eldest at college and were driving across Illinois on the way home. You know how, while driving through small Midwestern towns, the mind fills brimingly with cliches? Now "heyday" -- we found some disagreement -- couldn't it just come from the time of year when the crop is sold, money is in the pocket...? But we were more interested in the derivation of the term "keep your eyes peeled...." Yuck. Maybe it just means to keep them open but where did it come from? -- Diane Dudley Vaughan, Morton Grove, Il.
I don't know about cliches, but whenever I drive through small Midwestern towns, my mind fills with that most natural of responses to a rural setting -- raw, naked fear. Maybe it's all those Richard Matheson stories I read in my youth, but I'm always terrified that I'm going to be stranded in one of those tiny burgs where the locals have really quaint habits, usually along the lines of cannibalism. That I have to drive extra- slowly while traversing these towns in order to avoid provoking the local gendarmes (probably vampires themselves) only adds to the torture. No, I'll take New York City any day, thanks.
Since you asked, "heyday" comes from the old Germanic word "heida," meaning "hurrah!" In 16th century England, "Hey!" or "Heyda!" was a common interjection, a cry of joy or excitement. Later on, "heyda" came to mean a time of celebration, and the "da" was gradually replaced in English by "day," giving us "heyday."
Regarding "eyes peeled," it's a tossup whether that phrase is "yuckier" than its predecessor, "Keep your eyes skinned." In any case, they are both distinctively American coinages dating to the mid-19th century and meaning simply to stay very alert. To the extent that it means anything literally (do we really want to talk about this?), the phrase probably refers to keeping your eyelids open, which is good advice, by the way, when you're driving through those sinister little towns.
Great Balls O' Wax!
Dear Evan: A friend of mine at work asked me where the expression "whole ball of wax" originated. Any ideas? -- Mike Poplawski, Ministry of Education, Canada, via the Internet.
Ideas? Sure, I've got plenty of them. First of all, we tax television, charging broadcasters five dollars a day for every viewer who watches their programs. You'll have round-the-clock Masterpiece Theater and New York Philharmonic broadcasts in no time, and "Baywatch" will be history. I think it's a great plan.
If you mean ideas about where "whole ball of wax" (meaning "all" or "everything") came from, I have those too, but if you're looking for a definite answer, we're both out of luck. Curiously enough, the first verified citation for the phrase is very recent -- 1959 -- and "the whole ball of wax" didn't really get rolling in popular usage until the mid-1960's. It was popular among Madison Avenue advertising types during this period ("Let's run the whole ball of wax up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes"), but even at the time it gained this sudden currency lexicographers were stumped as to its origin.
One possibility, revealed by a correspondent in a letter to my parents (who began this column many years ago), was a peculiar practice used to divide estates under English law in the 17th century. According to a famous legal text of the time, the parts of the estate would be written down on scraps of paper, which would then be rolled into small balls of wax and tossed into a hat. Each beneficiary would then pick a ball from the hat, thus determining his or her share. If one of those present wasn't satisfied with the luck of the draw, tough -- whatever was inside his or her ball was "the whole ball of wax."
Personally, I think that this story constitutes an interesting coincidence, but hardly convincing as an origin for "the whole ball of wax." If the story is true, where was this phrase hiding for 300 years before it materialized one day on the lips of an advertising executive? I'm afraid the jury is still out on this particular "ball of wax."
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