Auld Lang Syne.

The fireworks over Sydney Harbour were sensational.

Last night, at the turn of the new year, we watched the fireworks over Sydney Harbour on TV, followed by this beautiful rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ by the cast of the musical Hamilton.

Traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve, ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ is a song about remembering the friends and loved ones we have known in the past.

For the first time in my lifetime of knowing this song, it brought tears to my eyes: not only was 2020 brutal in numerous ways, I knew I was not the only one who was painfully aware of missing a beloved someone. I was blown away by the realisation that this song is as much about grief as it is about wistfulness, friendships of the past, and happy memories.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?”

Robert Burns, 1796

The song we sing now is part of a longer song written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in the late 18th century. Sadly, though, many people sing it without really knowing what it means.

Auld Lang Syne is a sweet little Scots phrase that means ‘for old time’s sake’. It translates literally to “old long since”.
This song was a reinvention of an older song. Burns wrote about his song in separate letters to different people:

“It is the song of the olden times, which has never been in print… I took it down from an old man’s singing.”
“Light be on the turf of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment.”

Robert Burns

Just as the original song was much older than Burns’ version, the words themselves are very old. Auld and lang both come from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons, while syne dates to the 1300s.

It is a beautiful phrase to say: it feels nice in the mouth, and it sounds just lovely, especially when spoken with a Scottish accent.

From now on, when I hear ‘Auld Lang Syne’, I shall think of the wonderful people I have known and loved in my life, and of the happier times of the past, but I will also think of the beautiful words that have been passed down to use from auld lang syne, too.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a happier, more hopeful new year. Lang may yer lum reek.

Auld Lang Syne.
#words #AuldLangSyne #NewYear2021

These books, both in my personal library, were used as references in the preparation of this post.

Tinsel.

Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

I love tinsel. It’s so glittery and cheerful and colourful. It’s instant Christmas decoration that you can pull out of a bag and strew around the room and it immediately feels more like December.

Tinsel seems like a fairly recent invention, and in its current form, it is. Its history, though, goes back five hundred years to the very fine strands of hammered silver used in Nuremberg, Germany, in the early 1600s. At first, it was used more often to decorate sculptures or statues than trees., but it’s ability to sparkle and magnify the light from the candles used to illuminate Christmas trees caused its popularity to grow.  

Flawed by both brittleness and tarnish, early types of tinsel were nowhere near as hardy or long-lasting as what we have now. Over time, various other tinsel-like decorations were made using various different shiny or sparkly materials: silver or gold thread, or pieces of shiny fabric, and foil made from lead, copper or aluminium. During the 20th century, the advent of plastics made production of what we now know as tinsel cheaper and easier, while the dangers of other more flammable or toxic materials caused them to decrease in popularity.

The word tinsel dates back to the mid-1400s when it was used to describe cloth with gold or silver thread woven through it.

It is this sense of the word that is used by Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ where Margaret describe’s Hero’s fine wedding gown as being enhanced with a “bluish tinsel”.

The word came from Old French estencele, or estincelle — the es- was not pronounced– which meant ‘sparkle’ or ‘spangle’. From the 1590s onwards, tinsel was the name given to very thin sheets, strips or strands of shiny metal or fabric. This Old French word is related to the Latin word scintilla  meaning ‘spark’ , which in turn most likely came from the PIE roots*ski-nto, from which English also gets ‘shine’ and ‘scintillate’. It is also related to ‘stencil’.

By the mid 17th century, tinsel was also used in a non-literal sense to mean something showy or shiny, but not with any real value.

Sources:
Etymonline
The History of Tinsel
The Tumultuous History of Tinsel
This Is Why We Hang Tinsel At Christmas

Tinsel.
#christmasdecorations #Christmas #words

Why Are Christmas Songs Called Carols?

Photo by Blue Ox Studio on Pexels.com

I recently heard someone insisting that there was a difference between Christmas carols, which were all about baby Jesus and the angels, the star and the wise men, and Christmas songs, such as Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

It sounded like a feasible explanation, and the guy put up what seemed like a good argument– mostly due to his confidence and the underlying implication that he knew more about it than anyone else.
(See malapert and ultracrepidarian.)

That’s what triggered me to research the question. I confess it was more out of my desire to possibly prove him wrong than to actually know the answer that I took out my phone and searched Etymoline for ‘carol’. To my delight, he was wrong! It does seem to be a popular belief, but it’s not consistent with the etymology of the word carol.

Carol is a very old word that dates back to about 1300 in both its noun and verb forms.

At this time, the noun meant both a joyful song and a form of dance in a circle or ring. Both of these meanings probably came from the Old French word carole that referred to that kind of circular dance, which was sometimes accompanied by singers. The origins of the word before that are unclear, but it certainly does paint a festive picture.

It wasn’t until about 1500 AD – two centuries later – that the word had also come to refer to a hymn or song of joy sung at Christmas. Thus, the religious connotations of the word came much later than the secular meaning.

The verb form to carol first meant to dance in a ring or circular formation. The sense of the word that meant to sing with joy or celebration had developed by the late 14th century.

The verb carol did not mean to sing Christmas songs, often moving from place to place to do so, until the late 1800s. It does seem, though, that the practice of carolling is believed to be a much older tradition that was outlawed in Britain, along with the celebration of Christmas itself, by the Puritans who governed in the mid-1600s.

So, Christmas songs are called carols because of their festive and joyful nature. Given that a. the word was originally far more specific about the type of dance than the type of songs being sung, other than that they were joyful, and b. Jingle Bells and Rudolph are as festive in their own ways as Hark The Herald Angels Sing or Joy to the World, there is no reason to classify them differently. They’re all Christmas carols, and that’s that.

Sources:

Carole: European Dance
Etymonline
Medieval Circle Dance: Carole
The History of Christmas Carols

Why Are Christmas Songs Called Carols?
#ChristmasSongs #ChristmasCarols #blogpost

Baubles.

‘Bauble’ is a word used more in December than at any other time of the year.

Photo: Joanne Van Leerdam

On Saturday night we were out for a family dinner — we’re finally allowed to go out here, now, after months of lockdown and restrictions— and one of the young kids at the gathering commented to me that they liked the pretty balls on the light fittings, and then asked me if that’s what they were called.

I explained that they are called baubles, and added that the beads on her bracelet could also be called baubles because they are pretty things designed for decoration. They’re both different kinds of ornaments, and it’s cool how there are often multiple useful words to use for things.

This got me wondering about the origin of the word ‘bauble’. I suspected it was French, simply because of how it sounded,  but such assumptions are not safe. As always, my trusty Macquarie dictionary and Etymonline had my back.

‘Bauble’ came into English in the early 14th century, meaning a decorative trinket or ornament. It came from the Old French word ‘baubel’ meaning a child’s toy or trinket. That may have come from the Latin word ‘bellus’ meaning “pretty” which gave us belle, as in ‘belle of the ball’,  or it could be related to ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. The sense of bauble meaning something of little or no value is later, dating from the early 1600s.

Long ago, ‘bauble’ was also the name given to a staff with a decorated or carved head, carried by a court jester and designed to mock the sceptre carried by a monarch. This meaning has fallen out of use, much as the position of court jester and the practice of a monarch carrying a sceptre have done.

So, now ‘bauble’ only relates to the pretty things. It is important to understand, though, that just because something can be called a bauble does not automatically mean that it has no value. It’s fair to say that while some baubles, such as Christmas decorations and the beads in a child’s bracelet, might usually be fairly inexpensive, there are other kind of baubles that tend to be more valuable.

Thus, the two meanings of bauble remain distinct, even though they can both apply at the same time.