At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary by learning the fascinating origin of a seasonal phrase like 'Christmas carol'

Bill Casselman

Carol has enjoyed dozens of spellings, and this orthographic bounty occurred in French as well as English. Consider: karol, karolle, carole, carol, carrol, caroul, karalle, carowl, caryl, carrell, karrel and karil. The French word may have come over to England during the Norman Conquest. It becomes frequent in English manuscripts at the onset of the 14th century.

The French carol was first a ring dance, then a dance accompanied by song, then the song itself. A carol was an ancient pagan round dance with singing by couples, a fertility ring dance first done on May-day celebrations throughout western Europe and then the dancing and singing were shared by once pagan then Christian festivities celebrated at the midwinter solstice.

In the French dialect spoken in the Marne department, carole was a dance or a celebration. In the Swiss Romance dialect, coraula is a round dance. In Provençal and Italian carola is still a dance song or a round dance.

The ultimate provenance is unknown. But two etymologists have proposed origins of this tricky word. Friedrich Christian Diez, a German philologist (1794–1876), proposed an origin in the Latin word chorus, from Greek choros, noting that most early forms took /o/ as first vowel, corol, coral etc.

Karl Heinrich Wilhelm Wackernagel (1806-1869), a German-Swiss philologist, first suggested the /l/ of carol stemmed from choraules, the name of the flute-player who sometimes accompanied a Greek chorus as it danced and sang choral odes in early Greek drama.

Other guesses include corolla Latin ‘garland, ring-shaped crown of flowers, coronet’ especially if the original meaning was ‘ring.’ This not-now-popular suggestion conceives that the dancers wore flower garlands in their hair as they danced and sang, and that the name of the garland became the name of the dance and the song. Maybe.

Early Citations of the Word Carol
Here’s a relevant English citation from CE 1387 “He saw a mayden . . .daunsynge in a carrole among other maydouns.”

Long ago a British folk story told of circles of upright stones, like Stonehenge but smaller, that claimed they began as a blasphemous ring-dance, by a party of girls who were turned into stone for dancing carols on a Sunday.

In CE 1600, William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream wrote this line: “No night is now with hymne or carroll blest.”

The Phrasal Advent of Xmas Carol
How early did English speakers refer to Christmas carols? A famous printer of London with the wonderful name of Wynkyn de Worde published a book in CE 1521 entitled Christmasse Carolles.

How Carol Turned into Carrel
The carrel in a library, an individual study desk or stall, is from the same word carol. Libraries borrowed the word from medieval monasteries, where the carrel was a small alcove or cubicle for individual monks and nuns to read Holy Writ or to meditate. That sense of small enclosure developed from carol’s earliest meaning in French ‘ring’ or  ‘circle.’ Carol also once meant precinct or small enclosed space, hence it became an apt word to name the little study carrels in a cloister.

More Citational Bounty
From a Wikipedia article on medieval dance, we glean several kernels of delight. Some of the earliest mentions of the carol occur in the works of the French poet Chretien de Troyes in his series of Arthurian romances. In the wedding scene in Erec and Enide (in Old French about CE 1170)
“Puceles carolent et dancent,
Trestuit de joie feire tancent.”

“Maidens performed rounds and other dances, each trying to outdo the other in showing their joy.”

In The Knight of the Cart, (late CE 1170s) at a meadow where there are knights and ladies, various games are played while:
“Li autre, qui iluec estoient,
Redemenoient lor anfances,
Baules et queroles et dance;
Et chantent et tunbent et saillent.”

“Some others were playing at childhood games - rounds, dances and reels, singing, tumbling, and leaping.”

Carols mentioned in Carols
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

To conclude I offer a few personal Christmas gift suggestions:

To your enemy, forgiveness.

To an opponent, tolerance.

To a friend, your heart.

To a customer, service.

To all, charity.

To every child, a good example.

To yourself, respect."

Bill Casselman, December 19, 2016

Text copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman


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