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Don’t look back, Bob.

Dear Word Detective: Bob Dylan, on his Christmas special radio show (on XM satellite radio), said that the term “carol,” as in Christmas carol, was coined when people in London would sing Christmas songs, during their door-to-door search for a missing girl named “Carol,” so that residents would know they meant no harm. The girl was not found but the songs became known as “carols” after that. This was during the time of Jack the Ripper. Did this happen? — Greg.

I love this question. It’s got everything: a celebrity, London in the 19th century (gaslight, fog, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones…), Christmas, a serial killer on the loose, a race to save his innocent victim from dire peril, and toe-tapping music to boot! I think if we get cracking right away, we could have this ready for Broadway in time for Thanksgiving. After all, the score almost writes itself: On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four polygraphs, three latent prints, two bogus psychics, and Geraldo hiding in a pear tree. Dylan himself could do an “Our Town”-style narration, and we’d call it “The Ballad of Jack and Carol.” Awesome.

On the other hand, Mr. Dylan is a pretty smart cookie, so I think we have to entertain the possibility that he dreamed up that whole “Carol” story as a joke. But the story is out there now, so I’d better take it seriously, because I have the feeling I’ll be hearing it for the next few years. Thanks, Bob.

The bottom line is that the story of “carol” relayed by the Bobster is bogus, absolute and utter hogwash. “Carol” meaning a song or hymn sung at Christmas, has nothing to do with the personal name “Carol,” which is derived from the same Germanic root as “Charles.”

There’s a debate as to the origin of “carol” in the “song” sense, but English definitely adopted it from the Old French “carole,” and the favored theory traces it back to the Latin “choraules,” meaning “flute player who accompanies a choir or dance.” This trail leads back to the Greek “choros,” which also gave us “chorus” and “choir.” This is all very logical and fits in nicely with our modern English use of “carol” to mean a song usually sung by a group.

The original sense of that Old French “carole,” however, was “a dance in a circle accompanied by singing,” which has led to an alternate theory that the root of “carol” is actually the Latin “corolla,” meaning “little crown, garland,” carrying the sense of “ring” or “circle.” In fact, the original use of “carol” when it first appeared in English around 1300 was “a ring-dance accompanied with song.” Our modern sense of “carol” as a Christmas song didn’t appear until the early 16th century.

Whether the roots of “carol” lie in the sense of “chorus” or of “ring” may never be settled, but the citizens of London were definitely singing Christmas carols five centuries before Mr. Dylan’s improbable tale supposedly took place. My retroactive Christmas wish, speaking as a fan, is that he was joking.


Bloomin’ nonsense.

Dear Word Detective: During the Victorian era, the language of flowers was type of Morse code for lovers and friends. A flower listed in many glossaries of flower code, “abecedary,” is said to mean “volubility.” However, I am unable to find out what the flower is. All dictionary sources define “abecedary” as a child’s alphabet book or an ancient text in tablet form. Is there a flower previously known by the common name “abecedary,” or is this a misprint that has been maintained through repeated printings over the years? — Katharine Elliott.

Ah, the language of flowers. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “Making Whoopee — Words of Love for Lovers of Words” (makes a lovely Valentine’s Day gift, nudge, nudge). In the course of researching a section on the Victorian use of flowers as coded communication between lovers (even the knot used to tie a bouquet could have a hidden meaning), I learned that “floriography” became immensely popular in Victorian England, with dozens of books offering interpretations of some often fairly obscure flowers. One of the most popular was the Victorian illustrator Kate Greenaway’s 1885 “The Language of Flowers,” which was followed by many others, including at least one, in 1892, that apparently (as was a common practice at the time) copied chunks of Greenaway’s flower glossary wholesale.

Then came the internet, and platoons of people, or possibly monkeys, began furiously typing Greenaway’s text (which is still under copyright) into web sites. The very first two entries in the text as rendered on dozens of web sites today are “Abecedary,” which supposedly connotes “volubility” (talkativeness) and “Abatina,” said to signal “fickleness.” But as far as I can tell, “Abecedary” and “Abatina” are not and have never been the names of flowers, and, significantly, the only Victorian glossaries that include them are apparently Greenaway’s and the 1892 volume. In fact, since I don’t have a copy of the Greenaway book, I can’t swear she includes them. They may well be relics of typographical errors in the 1892 “borrowing” of her work.

If “Abecedary” is indeed an error, it’s easy to imagine how it happened. A glossary such as Greenaway’s is itself an abecedary of a sort, an “abecedary” (from “a, b, c, d”) being a book designed to teach children the alphabet (or simply an alphabetical list of words). It’s entirely possible that the first page of Greenaway’s book contained the word “abecedary,” and someone down the line who didn’t recognize the word took it for the name of a flower and simply made up a “secret meaning” for it. As for “abatina,” your guess is as good as mine.


Loco in the coco.

Dear Word Detective: In a biography of Alexander Hamilton, the author at one point describes George Washington as “tetchy” meaning “irritable.” I’m familiar with the use of “touchy” for irritable, and I’d heard the phrase “he’s a little tetched” to describe someone who’s a bit off mentally (and the use of “touched” to mean the same.) I’d always thought, though, that “tetched” was a backwoods variant and not standard English, but my dictionary and the author of the Hamilton biography seem to think otherwise. So my question is: are “touch” and “tetch” derived from the same origin? Or because of their similar sound did “touch” start to move “tetch” out of the language? I can’t imagine that “tetch” can be used to indicate one of the five senses, so my guess is they’re different words that have melded. — Barney Johnson.

Hey, watch it with that “backwoods” stuff. We actually have a “Backwoods Festival” around here every year, where the locals sell faux “backwoods” folk art (mostly made in the backwoods of Hong Kong and Managua) to suburban suckers hankering for a wide-eyed plywood scarecrow to lend that certain something to their patio.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “touchy” and “tetchy” appear to be separate words, although they both mean “irritable.” “Touchy” in its basic sense, of course, simply reflects “sensitive to touch” or “delicate,” as we call a difficult or precarious situation “touchy.” The literal senses of “touchy” (including “easily ignited” in the 17th century) clearly involve the idea of physical touching.

“Tetchy,” meaning “easily irritated or made angry,” first appeared in the late 16th century (in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in fact), and, unlike “touchy,” has never carried any literal connotations of physical contact. “Tetchy” appears to be a derivative of “tetch,” an English dialect word meaning “tantrum,” but the first written record of “tetch” comes after the appearance of “tetchy,” so “tetch” may actually be a “back formation” derived from “tetchy.” The root of “tetch” is, predictably, unknown, but it may be related to “attach” in the sense of “grip.” There is also a possibility, which makes me very tetchy, that “touchy” in the “irritable” sense and “tetchy” have been the same word all along.

As for “touched” (in the sense of “slightly demented,” short for “touched in the head”), “tetched” is simply a “backwoods” or colloquial variant, and has no apparent connection to “tetch” in the “irritable” sense.