Go prepared to your office parties and family gatherings this year. If the conversation wanes and youâve already exhausted the Christmas cracker jokes, no problem. Simply crack out one of these little beauties and get the party restarted* in no time, writes Cathy Relf.
1. Are the yoof of today to blame for âXmasâ?
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone! No. In fact, the Greeks are the guilty party. âX’temmasâ dates back to 1551, when âXâ was adopted as a substitute for âChristâ. The âXâ came from the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Î§ĎÎšĎĎĎĎ (Christos). However, âXmasâ remains widely frowned upon, despite Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge and Lewis Carroll all having used it.
2. Why is stuffing a farce?
We coined the word âstuffingâ, at least in the culinary sense, in the 1530s. (We started using it for lewder concepts slightly earlier.) Before that, weâd been using the French word, âfarceâ, from âfarcirâ (to stuff). At the time, âfarceâ also referred to the improvised comedies performed between acts in religious plays â literally âstuffedâ in â to keep the audience attentive. Todayâs meaning of farce has its roots in the improbable plots and slapstick humour of these interludes.
Around the 1880s, the somewhat graphic-sounding âstuffingâ fell out of favour in Victorian kitchens and âdressingâ appeared. âDressingâ is now rarely used in this context in the UK (though we do use it for âsalad dressingâ). But it remains fairly common in US and Canadian English. Thereâs a good discussion of this on Lynne Murphyâs Separated by a Common Language blog.
3. Whereâs the typo in gravy?
âGravyâ is what they call in the business a âghost wordâ. That is, one that came into being by mistake â usually through misinterpretation, mispronunciation or misreading. With âgravyâ, the mistake appears to have been made by a monk in the fourteenth century, who misread âgranĂŠâ (sauce, stew) and transcribed it as âgraveyâ. In French writing of the time, ânâ and âvâ were difficult to distinguish, especially by candlelight (and after an ale or three).
4. Why is Boxing Day called Boxing Day?
Itâs not, as your humble author had assumed until recently (despite a complete absence of supporting evidence), anything to do with boxing matches. There are a couple of explanations â probably related â both of which involve boxes. One is that on the day after Christmas, employers would give their tradesmen and servants a âChristmas boxâ, containing a gift or money. Another is that Anglican churches used to display a box during Advent for their congregations to put money into. On the day after Christmas, the boxes would be opened and the money inside distributed among the poor. Both traditions are far older than the name âBoxing Dayâ, which first appeared in 1809.
5. Why do we say âmerry Christmasâ and âhappy new yearâ, and not the other way around?
âHappy Christmas and a merry new yearâ just doesnât sound right, does it? And for good reason. Merriness tends to be a fleeting thing, involving mirth, high spirits and perhaps a tot or two of tipsiness. It is festive by nature â and it passes, like Christmas Day. Happiness, meanwhile, can mean a more lasting state that involves contentedness as well as joy and pleasure. So, while we hope that your New Yearâs Eve will be a most merry affair, we hope your 2014 will be a happy one. Merry Christmas and a happy new year!
*Party restarting not guaranteed.