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Brandon Robshaw: Christmas usage

Murie Xmas

So, here we are in December again. It is time, if one hasn't done so already, to send Xmas cards, buy an Xmas tree, do Xmas shopping...

Xmas. That's an annoying abbreviation, isn't it? I have always disliked it. It always struck me as somehow brash and vulgar and seemed to have no rhyme or reason behind it: Xmas neither looks nor sounds anything like Christmas.

But there is a reason behind it. The X in this case stands for the Ancient Greek letter which is usually transliterated as Kh. The Greek word for Christ is Khristos. Therefore X is simply an abbreviation for Christ – reasonably enough, since the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Christianity can be abbreviated as Xtianity – and is, throughout the whole of the novel Augustus Carp, by Himself (Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man). (By the way, if you have not read this wonderful satirical comic novel, published in 1924, you really ought to.) And so Xmas = Christmas – and they should be pronounced the same. (Though perhaps strictly speaking it should be written Xtmas.)

The other word I feel like musing on today is merry. We hardly use this word at all the rest of the year, but it comes into its own about now. It derives from Old English myrge, meaning "pleasing, agreeable"; in Middle English it took the form mirie or murie. It derives from a proto-Germanic word, murgijaz, meaning short-lasting (thanks to the online etymological dictionary etymonline for that). Presumably it evolved into its present meaning from the idea that time flies when you're having fun. Apart from Merry Christmas, its other uses are the slightly outdated term merry to mean pleasantly tipsy; the phrase to lead someone a merry dance; and merry England, used to denote a mythical Middle Ages where everyone feasted and drank and danced around maypoles.

Murie Xmas, everybody!

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.


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