Yule: where does that word come from?
yeul, yewl, yool, yuill, geol, geochol, gehhel, geola, iula: that’s only a sampling of the spellings (and pronunciations) noted for this word over the past 1300 years. I haven’t read the dictionary cover to cover, but yule has more variants than any other word I’m familiar with. I’ve listed only a few because many use Middle and Old English characters which, to be honest, I don’t know how to pronounce with authority.
Variety makes it noteworthy, but yule is also one of the older words in the dictionary. Strikingly old, in fact, with first written use noted in 726. Centuries before English as we know it was even a twinkle in Shakespeare’s eye. The OED has to reach into a Latin text, where the word is Giuli, a derivative of “Old Norse jól plural a heathen feast lasting twelve days.” The first definition cites yule merely as a synonym for December or January.
This early meaning of yule held across most of northern Europe: in the Germanic language regions of Europe proper; throughout Scandinavia; and in the British Isles; some form of yule was celebrated, or at least noted. Sources vary on which god (or gods) were honored by yule celebrations; some indicate that in different places and times yule wasn’t even a specific celebration, but simply a designation for a month roughly equating to modern December. Or January. Or November. Some note that the month following yule was sometimes named simply “after yule.” The beauty (and source of frustration) in the historical record is how unclear it can be.
At some point before the 13th century, these twelve-day (or thirteen-day; or one-month) yule festivals became equated with Christian celebrations. This is very possibly where the “Twelve Days of Christmas” idea comes from. I’ve read other explanations stating that this idea stems not from pre-Christian traditions, but from advent, or the magi, and so on. It seems unlikely to me that any of these are credible, in the face of existing winter solstice celebrations across the ancient world.
The second definition of yule is the one we use most commonly: the Christmas season, or Christmas itself, or the holiday season in general. It’s an odd word: one that most English speakers over the age of 10 understand but which few ever actually use. It seems, today, to be largely consigned to old songs, advertising, and the occasionally snarky greeting.
You’ve got to give credit to a publication that comes right out and says something like “since c1850 also a literary archaism in English,” which is what the OED says about yule. That’s part of why I like the OED so much: they’re not afraid to tell you, however politely, that your vocabulary is out of date.
[This makes me wonder if anyone has ever taken the time to collect specific words like this one: seasonal vocabulary that isn’t used (or can’t be sensibly used) at any other time of the year. That’s an investigation for another time.]
The OED is full of yule- compounds (hyphenated or not): yule feast, yule night, yule time, yule-cake, yule-log, yule-tide. The meanings of some are obvious or easily inferred, others not so much. Two specifically gave me pause: yule-clog, which apparently was an acceptable alternative to yule-log until the last century or two; and yule gut, the example use of which I’ll reproduce here:
Thrice had all New-yeares Guests their yewl guts fill’d With embalm’d Veal, buried in Christmas Past. (Musarum Deliciae, 1656)
Putting aside speculation on what a yule gut actually is, I probably shouldn’t go any deeper. The potential connection between “embalm’d Veal” and hákarl might just put you off your Sunday dinner.
Gut Yul and Happy Holidays to you all, readers! Thanks for helping make this blog a success so far!
[Note: This post was prepared early and scheduled to appear at the usual time. There will be a similarly scheduled post in the regular slot on Monday. Your comments continue to be welcome, but I might not get around to responding for a few days over the holiday weekend.]