Deck the Halls with Etymology

By Maeve Maddox

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Traditional Christmas songs are a treasure trove of archaisms and words that have changed their meanings through the centuries.

“Deck the Halls,” published in 1794, but dating from a much earlier Welsh carol, contains several such words. The melody dates to the sixteenth century. The familiar English lyrics were written by Thomas Oliphant (1799-1873) in 1862.

I’ll focus on the relevant lines and avoid all the fa la la la la la la la las.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
As a verb, deck’s earliest meaning in English was “to cover,” as with a roof. Next, it could mean to cover with garments, especially rich or ornamental garments. In “Deck the Halls,” it refers to the act of decorating a room with holly boughs.

Don we now our gay apparel
The verb don means “to put on.” It’s a shortening of the verbal phrase “do on.” Its opposite is doff, “to take off”—a shortening of “do off.”

The adjective gay has numerous definitions. The ones that fit the context here are “Bright or lively-looking, especially in color; brilliant, showy.” and “Finely or showily dressed.”

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
When I was a child, my first encounter with troll in “Deck the Halls” puzzled me because I associated the word with the Norwegian folk tale, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” in which a Troll “with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker” lurked under a bridge, waiting to pounce on its victims.

Today’s youngsters are more likely to think of “trolling” as the actions of an internet troll : a person on the internet who seeks to stir up conflict by “trolling” other users with ugly remarks and misinformation.

Here’s an early definition:

to troll: “To sing (something) in the manner of a round or catch; to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.”

Yuletide combines the words Yule and tide. Yule derives from an ancient Germanic winter festival. Tide can mean “time” or “season.” The meaning in “Deck the Halls” is “Christmas time” or “the Christmas season.”

This may be my imagination, but Yule seems to be catching on in some commercial quarters, possibly as a nonsectarian stand-in for Christmas. I noticed a caption under a photo in which a woman and her daughter are said to “look at yule trees for sale Thursday at Wisconsin Tree Farms.”

Finally, the word carol is one that has changed meaning over the years. It originally denoted dancers holding hands in a circle. Then, it developed the general meaning of “a joyous song.” As a verb, carol is frequently used in the context of birdsong, but the most common modern meaning of the noun is a hymn or song about the birth of Jesus. To carol, is “to sing Christmas songs.”

Related post: Happy Yuletide!

To all our readers, best wishes for a
Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Joyous Kwanzaa
Prosperous Pongal
Delightful Dongzhi
Super Solstice
and any other cherished winter festivals I don’t know about.

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4 Responses to “Deck the Halls with Etymology”

  • venqax

    Now what, exactly, is a sugarplum. THAT has been batted around for over a century. I think he might have just made it up!

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    No, he didn’t make it up. According to the OED and M-W, the word was around in the 1600s. Seems a sugarplum was a boiled sweet (hard candy) in the shape of a hailstone.

  • venqax

    In the shape of a hailstone? I wonder what that would be. Do they have shapes? Seems like saying, “in the shape of a rock”. Maybe there was some stylized vision of what a hailstone looked like– like we do with diamonds or hearts? Interesting.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    The shape is round or oval. I took the hailstone comparison from the OED example from the Tatler (1709): “Little Plates of Sugar-Plumbs, disposed like so many Heaps of Hail-stones.”

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