Christmas and Xmas

I noticed an online acquaintance the other day becoming extremely agitated that someone had referred to Christmas using the colloquialism Xmas. She felt that this was insulting, and offensive in the extreme. What she didn’t realize was that Xmas as a shortened form for Christmas has a venerable (and solidly Christian) history.
The word Christmas is a compound of Christ + mass; we see it first in Old English in the form Cristes mæsse in 1038, according to the OED. The Old English form eventually evolved to the Middle English Christemasse. The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” a literal translation of the Hebrew cognate of messiah. Mass, as in the Christian ritual, derives from  Middle English masse, from Old English mæsse, from Vulgar Latin *messa, from Late Latinmissa, from Latin, feminine past participle of mittere, to send away, dismiss.]

The X of Xmas is a shorthand way to refer to the name of Christ. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the Greek letter Chi, written as X (the ancestor of the English letter X) is the first letter of Christ’s name. X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since at least the early 1500s. Earlier, and closely related abbreviations include Xp and Xr, from the Chi, the Rho and the Iota (our letter I/i), the Greek letters that spell the Chr, the first three letters of Christ. 
In medieval manuscripts the Chi Rho page is typically a very highly ornamental page in from the beginning of the book of Matthew. The name is because the text is about the birth of Christ  from the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .” The most famous page in the Book of Kells is the Chi Rho page
An entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle c. 1100 uses the shorthand of Xres masesse for Christmas; an abbreviation like Xmas is not so heretical, after all, and in truth, is quite traditional. 


The business with Ajay Naylor had been concluded to mutual satisfaction; she was not adverse to providing him rugs on commission, though she was less sanguine, even, than Audrey regarding the possibility of shipping off-planet.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I Dare.

when, as sometimes happened, filial respect wore a little thin, at least these regrettable lapses did not last for long, and were not difficult for a man of his sanguine temperament to forget.

Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy.

Sanguine is a fairly common word, but it’s a bit disconcerting to look at the way sanguine is usually used compared to the dictionary definition of sanguine and its etymology. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, sanguine means:

  1. Of the color of blood; red.
    1. Of a healthy reddish color; ruddy: a sanguine complexion.
  2. Archaic Having blood as the dominant humor in terms of medieval physiology.
    1. Having the temperament and ruddy complexion formerly thought to be characteristic of a person dominated by this humor; passionate.
  3. Cheerfully confident; optimistic (AHD).

Most of the time when we see or hear sanguine used today, it’s used in terms of the third definition; “Cheerfully confident; optimistic,” as in the quotation from Lee and Miller’s I Dare. But sometimes, we also see and hear sanguine and related words used to mean either “bloody, ” or the color of blood, as in the wine and fruit beverage sangria, a word that is cognate with sanguine.

Sanguine, and a cohort of cognates (like sangria), entered English by way of Old French, sanguin, derived from Latin sanguis, sanguin-, both of which mean “blood.” As I observed earlier, Modern English uses sanguine most often in its third meaning of “cheerfully confident; optimistic,” but the same root also gives us “sanguinary,” or “bloodthirsty.” The reason for this seeming contradiction derives from medieval medical terminology.

Physicians, beginning in the Classical era and flourishing In the middle ages (and continuing right through the early nineteen hundreds in a modified form), believed that perfect health consisted in a balance between the four humors. The humors were four bodily fluids (blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm) each of which each governed not only physical characteristics, but emotional states and qualities. If someone had an excess of blood it was the dominant humor and determined their basic psychological state or temperament. People of a sanguine humor or temperament were believed to have a cheerful disposition, one rich with good will, and hope. They were believed to readily fall in love. Such people were said to have a sanguine disposition.


humor noun

  1. The quality that makes something laughable or amusing; funniness: could not see the humor of the situation.
  2. That which is intended to induce laughter or amusement: a writer skilled at crafting humor.
  3. The ability to perceive, enjoy, or express what is amusing, comical, incongruous, or absurd. See Synonyms at wit1.
  4. One of the four fluids of the body, blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile, whose relative proportions were thought in ancient and medieval physiology to determine a person’s disposition and general health.

That’s not the complete definition from the American Heritage Dictionary, but it’s enough for now.

Modern English humor derives from Middle English, where humor largely referred to a bodily fluid; Middle English borrowed Old French umor, which is largely a borrowing from from Latin ūmor, hūmor, meaning “fluid.” In earlier eras, our bodies were thought to be affected by the balance of four humors or fluids; blood, bile, phlegm and choler. These fluids, and their balance, determined which of four temperaments (sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, or choleric, were dominant in an individual. Each of the humors was also associated with one of the four elements.

The basic theory behind the humors was developed by Hippocrates (460-370 BC) who theorized that human psychology, or in his terms, moods and emotions with their associated behaviors, were caused by body fluids or humors. The specific fluids were blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Hippocrates’ ideas were central to early medicine and were used for treatments of disease. Subsequently, Galen (AD 131-200) wrote a treatise on the effects of the humors in combination to develop temperaments in De temperamentis. The root behind temper and temperament means “mix” and Galen attempted to determine the specific physiological causes for various human psychological states Galen associated the humors with the four elements, and described the resulting states as combinations of hot/cold and dry/wet.

Blood Sanguine Happy, extroverted, emotional, and talkative.
Yellow bile Choleric Ambitious, energetic, active, and often dominant; typically associated with military leaders.
Black Bile Melancholic Introverted, self-involved, forgetful, worries and stresses. Often associated with poets and writers.
Phlegm Phelegmatic Self-content, often kind, consistent, rule-based, fond of stability and tradition, reluctant to change, loyal.

Carpe Diem

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying.
. . .
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

Robert Herrick (). “To the Virgins, To Make Much Of Time

Previously I wrote about harvest, and traced the modern English word back to the Proto Indo-European root *kerp-. I noted that the same root gives us Modern English excerpt and scarce, both from Latin carpere, “to pluck.” The verb carpere is mostly used in Latin to refer to plucking or picking objects like fruit or flowers. The Latin commonplace carpe diem uses the verb carpere in the imperative as part of an admonition to, as the AHD puts it, “seize the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future.”

In the most literal translation, carpe diem means “seize the day.” The phrase was popularized by the Latin poet Horace who lived from 65 B.C.E. to 8 B.C.E., and used the phrase in his “Ode 11,” from his first book of odes. Horace’s own title for the work we call Odes Book 1 was Carmina, or “Songs.” Here is Horace’;s “Ode 1.11,” in Latin and English:

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi Leuconoe, don’t ask — it’s a sin to know—
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios what end the gods will give me or you. Don’t play with Babylonian
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati. fortune-telling either. It is better to endure whatever will be.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam, Whether Jupiter has allotted to you many more winters or this final one
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea on the rocks placed opposite
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi — be smart, drink your wine. Scale back your long hopes
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled
aetas: carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.

Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.

Horace’s context for the phrase is “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” or “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.” Horace’s poem was published in 23 B.C.E., some 2044 years ago, but it’s just as human and true now as it was then. We still find ourselves attracted to the idea of “seizing the day,” or living today, because tomorrow is uncertain. (A more rural version of the commonplace is “Make hay while the sun shines.”) Other poets utilized the concept of carpe diem, if not the commonplace. The best known of these later poets is likely Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress,”; and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,” with which I opened this post. (Herrick is also inspired by the line “collige, virgo, rosas” or “gather, girl, the roses”) from the end of a poem “De rosis nascentibus” attributed to Ausonius or Virgil.) Herrick’s poem motivates and inspires iRobin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society (1989). Steve Martin also riffs on carpe diem in the 1987 film Roxanne.


COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.

Robert Herrick (1591–1674). “The Hock-Cart Or Harvest Home.”

According to the OED, until about 1600, harvest was preferred over autumn to describe the season between Summer and Winter. Harvest as a noun is

1. The act or process of gathering a crop.

  • 2a. The crop that ripens or is gathered in a season.
  • b. The amount or measure of the crop gathered in a season.
  • c. The time or season of such gathering.

3. The result or consequence of an activity (AHD).

In earlier eras, when life was more closely tied to an agricultural and pastoral calendar and rural living, it made sense for autumn to be seen as the season of harvest, when we cut down crops and livestock and prepare food for winter storage. 

In that context, the etymology of harvest is very telling. Modern English harvest is from Middle English, via Old English hærfest. Harvest has a proto Indo-European root of *kerp-, which, the AHD tells us, means “To gather, pluck, harvest.” The same PIE root also gives us carpet; excerpt, scarce, all of which are derived from Latin carpere, to pluck. These are all words that have to do with cutting, or removing something from a larger whole. Herrick’s poem “The Hock-Cart or Harvest Home” is all about the seasonal plucking of crops in the fall. The Hock-cart was the last cart carrying home the harvest, and was frequently decorated and served as the center piece for various traditional English harvest celebrations. You might already be familiar with Latin carpere, to pluck, from the expression carpe diem.

Red Letter Day

“It’s a great piece of luck, ma’am,” said Mrs Belfield, “that you should happen to come here, of a holiday! If my son had not been at home, I should have been ready to cry for a week: and you might come any day the year through but a Sunday, and not meet with him any more than if he had never a home to come to.”
“If Mr Belfield’s home-visits are so periodical,” said Cecilia, “it must be rather less, than more, difficult to meet with him.”
“Why you know, ma’am,” answered Mrs Belfield, “to-day is a red-letter day, so that’s the reason of it.”
“A red-letter day?”
“Good lack, madam, why have not you heard that my son is turned book- keeper?”

Fanny Burney. Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress.

“Red-letter day” is one of those expressions we use quite frequently without really thinking about its ancestry. Everyone knows that a “red letter day” is one that stands out as important, or “Memorably happy,” as the AHD puts it. Behind the idiom lies an actual medieval calendar tradition.

Phaidon's Book of Hours with facsimile images of pages from several books of hoursIn the middle ages, the wealthy had expensive and often luxuriously illustrated prayer books known as books of hours. These personal prayer boks provided prayers and readings tied to the various times of days, and to particular feast days in the Catholic ecclesiastic calendar. The book of hours associated the feasts days, saint’s days, and other religious days in the church calendar with specific images, and prayers. Each month of the year was represented, with a list of the important dates, and, typically, an image of a seasonal agricultural or aristocratic practice (hawking in May, for instance, or harvesting nuts in November) and an illustration showing the zodiac sign for that month, for instance Gemini in May and Scorpio in November.

The illustration was either accompanied by or incorporated into a list of dates for the particular month. This list or calendar used color-coding to indicate the really important dates from the less important dates. The major religious feast days like Easter were in gold leaf; while the lesser but still important dates were in red— hence “red letter day.”

Glassgow Hours folio 13r: calendar page for December

To the left of this paragraph I’ve linked to an image of a calendar page (click the image to enlarge it) from a book of hours in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department. This particular Book of Hours manuscript is known as the Glasgow Hours and was made in North-East France in about 1460. You can click the image for a larger version. The “red letter” days displayed on the calendar are the feasts of Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and the feast of Saint Nicasius (December 14). The particular saints and feasts recorded on a calendar in a book of hours often help indicate where the manuscript was produced, and when, since there were particular saints favored more or less in different areas and times. The phrase “red-letter day” is first noted by the OED in 1704; the quotation from Burney’s novel in the opening of this post was published in 1782. In the context of the passage, I suspec that “red-letter day” is meant to suggest that not only is it “special,” but that it is special in particular for Mr. Belfield, who works as a book-keeper, because the day in question is a bank holiday, and thus a holiday for him.


Now Glutton begins to go to shrift
And takes his way toward the church to tell his sins.
But Betty the brewer bade him good morning
And she asked him where he was going.
“To Holy Church,” he said, “to hear mass,
And then I shall be shriven and sin no more.”
“I’ve good ale, good friend,” said she. “Glutton, will you try it?”
“Have you,” he asked, “any hot spices?”
“I have pepper and peony and a pound of garlic,
A farthing-worth of fennel seed for fasting days.”

Piers the Plowman Passus V

Piers the Plowman is a fifteenth century Middle English religious narrative. This particular passage is part of a longer section about the seven deadly sins; though this bit focusses on gluttony. Gluttony is on his way to confession, when he meets Betty the brewer. The speakers, Glutton and Betty the brewer, are discussing the use of garlic and other spices as additives to beer or ale; unfortunately, they’re discussing them in the context of fasting, when they shouldn’t be eating at all. Fennel was believed to be efficacious when drinking on an empty stomach; pepper and garlic and peony, were “hot” spices that stimulated the appetite.


  1. An onion like plant (Allium sativum) of southern Europe having a bulb that breaks up into separable cloves with a strong distinctive odor and flavor.
  2. The bulb of this plant.

Origin: Middle English, from Old English gārlēac: gār, spear + lēac, leek (AHD).

Garlic, beloved by many and hated by a few, is one of those plants that’s used in just about every cuisine. There are references to garlic used as food in Homer, the Bible, Egyptian texts, as well as Chinese culinary and medicinal manuals from the earliest recorded histories. The Modern English word is composed of two Old English words; gār, spear and lēac, leek. A leek, technically, is

An edible plant (Allium porrum) related to the onion and having a white, slender bulb and flat, dark-green leaves (AHD).

Cover of thee Complete Book of GarlicThe best part of the leek, in terms of using it as food, is the last third or so of the leaves, where they join and then swell to create the bulb. But the garlic plant, while the bulb part is similar to the leek, has strikingly different leaves; they are sharp, pointed, and very spear-like—which is why the Old English word for spear, gār, is used for the first syllable. Old English gar or “spear” cognate with Old Norse geirr and German ger “spear” are all derived from from PIE *ghaiso- “stick, spear”, the same PIE root that gives us Modern English goad.

You can see, and hear, gar used in the very first lines of Beowulf, regarding the Spear-Danes, Gar-Dana. The Spear-Danes are the Scyldings the people led by Hrothgar.


Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Keats To Autumn ll. 1-11

Autumn noun
1. The season of the year between summer and winter, lasting from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice and from September to December in the Northern Hemisphere; fall.
2. A period of maturity verging on decline (AHD).

Modern English autumn via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, from Latin autumnus.

Today is the first day of fall, or autumn, if you will. It seems an auspicious date to start a new blog about words and language.

The etymology offered for autumn by the AHD seems clear enough, but the earlier history of autumn is not at all clear, once we track back to Latin autumnuns. The OED refers the etymologically curious to the standard Lewis and Short Latin dictionary. Lewis and Short suggests that Latin autumnus may be related to the older Latin augere, or “increase.”

Standard English usage before about the sixteenth century favored harvest was the preferred name for this time of year; now, in North America, fall seems to be the more commonly used word. In any case, today while the sun is bright and the temperature moderate, the breeze sending leaves waft and skirling along the sidewalks is very much the signature of fall or autumn, and a harbinger of harvest to come.

Yes, It’s Saint Patrick’s Day

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

As a Celticist, I have an abiding interest in Irish culture, and around March 17, so, apparently, does most of the United States. I’ve written a rant about Irish cultural myths, I’ve written about the true place of corned beef in terms of Irish culture, genuinely Irish food, like Irish Soda Bread, colcannon, Guinness, and Irish Whisky, and even Irish loan words in English, and the real nature of Leprechauns.

All of that said St. Patrick seems to have been a fifth century Romano-Britain, a speaker of a language closely related to Welsh, before he became the national saint of Ireland.