By Anatoly Liberman
“The Oxford Etymologist” never eats, drinks, or sleeps; his (their?) activity signifies an ultimate triumph of spirit over matter. Vacationing is out of the question. During the week, he (though not without hesitation, I’ll now switch to the masculine singular) studies dictionaries and special literature, getting ready for Wednesday morning, the day when the world wakes up in anticipation of etymological discoveries. His project for 2009-2012 is to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, and write a book about the experience. But let no one think that “The Oxford Etymologist” neglects the calendar and confuses Easter with Yule.
Yule (the word) has been the object of endless speculation, but its prehistory will probably remain hidden for all times. The vengeful pagan gods reveal their secrets grudgingly. They allow us to burn the Yule log but keep the information about the old ritual to themselves. In dealing with Yule, etymologists face the familiar dilemma: nothing can be said about a word unless the nature of the thing it designates is known, and we only know that Yule referred to a winter month and, apparently, to a religious event celebrated at the end of the year. Not improbably, sacrifices attended the festivities. Only after the conversion did Yule become an approximate synonym for Christmas. As far as we can judge, the most ancient Germanic form of the word Yule was iehwulo-, alternating with iegwulo- (read i- like y- in Engl. yet; the boldface marks the place of stress). The cognates of Yule have been recorded in Gothic (in the 4th century (the Goths lived on the shores of the Black Sea, but they may have migrated there from Scandinavia; the fact of their migration is hard to establish), Old Norse, and Old English, but not in German. Engl. Yule may owe part of its modern meaning to Scandinavian usage; Yuletide is certainly an Anglicized form of a Scandinavian compound. If the homeland of the Goths was closer to where Sweden is today, the word’s provenance must have been the north of the territory inhabited by the speakers of the Old Germanic languages (the “Teutons”). Something about Yule caught the fancy of neighboring peoples, for its name made its way into Finnish (older juhla = Modern joulu). Even a Korean look-alike exists. Migratory Indo-European words occurring in Korean, Chinese, Mongolian, and some Western languages are rather numerous, but since we have no traces of Yule between North Germanic and allegedly Korean, the affinity between the two nouns should rather be ascribed to a coincidence. Below we will see that the etymology of Yule depends to a certain extent on whether a similar form attested in Romance is relevant to the discussion.
The Gothic word mentioned above is jiuleis, part of the phrase fruma jiuleis, glossed as Naubaimbair, that is, “November,” in the Gothic calendar. This phrase has been interpreted as meaning that November comes before jiuleis (fruma “preceding”), so that jiuleis turned out to be December. But the speakers of Old Germanic did not divide the year into twelve months, with each of them beginning on the first day. The traditional Icelandic calendar reflects an age-old custom. Each ancient “section” corresponded roughly to two modern months. Consequently, the Gothic phrase may have meant “the first half of jiuleis.” Our January would then have been the second part. Also, in Anglo-Saxon England “before/early geola” and “after/late geola” were distinguished (here, too, read g- like y- in Engl. yet). Among many others, Yule has been compared with July; a Lithuanian verb meaning “to become blind” (Yule presumably named the darkest days); several words for “plea” and “sacrifice”; Engl. yawl (as though Yule inaugurated the noise of revelry); the cognates of Engl. year; the Icelandic word for “shower” (which in this case was understood as “snowstorm”); and the Greek and the English words for “wheel” (Old Engl. hweol “wheel” rhymes with geol, and the Greek for “wheel” can be detected in Engl. cycle; in the Odyssey, one finds the phrase as the seasons/years revolved). The wheel etymology enjoys the greatest public support, but historical linguists are well advised to avoid plebiscite. Skeat says: “The attempt to connect this word with wheel is futile.” The verdict in The Century Dictionary sounds even harsher: “This notion, absurd with regard to the alleged connection of thought, is also phonetically impossible; the A[nglo]-S[axon] word for wheel was hweol, and could have no connection with geol.” Is the alleged connection of thought really absurd? Doesn’t the year indeed “turn” after the winter solstice? The author of the wheel etymology was no other than Jacob Grimm, who obviously realized that the sounds do not match. The other conjectures were also offered by seasoned, sometimes deservedly famous, scholars.
The motivation for naming a festival can come from unexpected quarters. For example, the Russian for Yule is sochel’nik (stress on the second syllable). It probably traces to the name of the dough used for baking flat loafs (a kind of bannocks) and eaten at Yule. People also made masks from that dough and peeped through them. The appearance of the first person who passed by was supposed to tell them something about their future. Given such a wide range of options, our chances of discovering the origin of Yule (which were never good) diminish even more. Yet one hypothesis seems to have potential. Despite some phonetic difficulties, Yule may be related to Latin jocus “joke” (if so, -l in iehwulo-, the reconstructed proto-Germanic form of Yule, is a suffix). Originally, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, “joke” referred not to verbal wit, but to entertainment or festivity. This is where the Romance forms come in. Engl. jolly is a loan from French, but in French it may be a borrowing of a Germanic word for Yule. Armed with this etymology, we will be allowed to make a small step toward the sought-for answer and let Yule emerge as a period of joy and public celebration. In the modern continental Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish), jul is a noun of the so-called common gender (as opposed to the neuter), but in Icelandic it is neuter, and always plural (however, a related singular noun exits). T present the plural has no justification. If the jocus/Yule tie is not dismissed out of hand, the plural may be understood as pointing to festivities. Similarly, we speak of Olympic Games, though the singular game is a legitimate form.
The unquestionable Scandinavian-Finnish connection and a possible bridge between Yule and jolly show that the Germanic festival was celebrated with sufficient pomp to impress neighbors. Let us hope that the “Teutons” were of good cheer while seeing off the darkest days of winter and ushering in light. The hitch is that even the cleverest etymology of Yule is bound to remain guesswork.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”