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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 20

December 14, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Once in a while we receive a question which requires more than a simple answer.  One such was Pam Peter's enquiry:

Hi, we are performing a song called A'soalin and I was wondering if you knew where it came from. We believe it is similar to wasseling.

We thought it sounded familiar but needed more information so we asked Pam if she could provide the lyrics and here they are.

(Stookey/Mezzetti) Pepamar Music Corp. ASCAP

The streets are very dirty, my shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket to put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny, a ha' penny will do.
If you haven't got a ha' penny then God bless you. (Chorus)

Soal, a soal, a soal-cake, Please good missus a soal-cake.
Apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry, Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all.


Now to the Lord sing praises all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace...
This holy tide of Christmas of beauty and of grace,
Oh tidings of comfort and joy.

We notice that it is credited to Stookey and Mezzetti.  Hmmm...   We would think twice about paying ASCAP any royalties for this one, Pam, as it is clearly a traditional English song from the Midlands and Northwest with a verse from a Christmas song tacked onto the end.  The Souling Song (as it is called on the 1965 album "Frost and Fire" by the Wattersons) was sung on All Hallows (that is, Halloween and All Souls' Day) by children who would go from door to door asking for pennies and soulcakes.  As we see from the lyrics, the children asked for "any good thing to make us merry" but soulcakes were not originally intended for the living.  Long before the Christian church gave the end of October and beginning of November the name "All Hallows", it was the Celtic new year. It is thought that the soulcake tradition may be a remnant of the ancient, pre-Christian practice of preparing a final meal for that year's dead. 

The Celts believed in ghosts and they considered it quite natural for a departed spirit to want to hang around its old haunts (sorry).  Equally naturally, they didn't want to keep bumping into spectres of their revered ancestors every time they popped down the mead-hall for a quick one.  Thus, on the last night of the year (the Celtic year, that is; our Halloween) the table would be set and the spirits of those relatives who had died that year were invited back one last time.  After that they were expected to go and stay gone.

There is something about the tune which is very eerie.   Perhaps it's something to do with its primitive simplicity as it uses only four notes: g, a, b and C.  Here, take a listen.  

The custom of wassailing (or wasseling) is similar in some ways to the soulcake tradition - you knocked on your neighbors' doors, sang a special song and received gifts.  In this case the singers were usually adults and the gifts were a little more grown-up: mostly beer.  Wassailers were thought to be luck-bringers and they sometimes carried an elder bough bedecked with ribbons to signify good fortune.  Another curious feature of this custom was the "peg", a large wooden bowl (often adorned with holly and ivy) which was used to collect the beer.   This "peg o' wassail" gave rise to the quaint yet baffling English pub name "The Pig and Whistle".

The word wassail literally means "be healthy". It comes from two Old English words waes and hail. The first, waes, means "be" (the imperative form of wesan, "to be"), and hail is the same as our modern word hale, "healthy" or "whole".

Unlike the souling tradition there are many wassailing songs, the most well-known of which is called "Here We Come A-Wassailing".   The tune for this song is known in various forms right across Europe from Ireland to the Balkans and is usually associated with midwinter.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Texas Science Hotline:

Could you help with the etymology of the word diabetes?   Your assistance would be appreciated! (Love the site!)

Well, Texas, your only mistake was the parenthetical phrase  "Love the site!"  Land o'Goshen, why would you place praise for this site in parentheses? 

Now to indulge my curiosity: why is the Texas Science Hotline asking us about diabetes?  Surely it's not because one of us (Melanie) is from Texas.  Further reason NOT to parenthesize praise for Take Our Word For It!

English diabetes comes from Greek diabétes "passing through", a reference to the disease's symptom of excessive urination.   Diabetes usually means, more specifically, diabetes mellitus, and the latter word comes from the Greek word for "honey", because the urine of diabetics smells and tastes (!) sweet.   Yes, Aristotle himself discovered the "taste" part!  This sweetness is due to excessive glucose in the urine, caused by the diabetic body's inability to metabolize carbohydrates.  Some cognates of mellitus are mellifluous and the name MelissaDiabetes comes from the Greek prefix dia- "through" and baínein "go" (related to English basis and, interestingly, come).   Diabetes the word (and not the disease!) came to English from the Greek via Medieval Latin diabetes in the 16th century.


From [Lieutenant] Brian Weddell:

Being an ex-British Army lieutentant, and therefore constantly at odds with Canadian and American veterans on this issue, I should be delighted if anyone could enlighten me on the origin of the British pronunciation of lieutentant (leftenant), as opposed to the more logical (but less romantic) American version of lieutenant.   The best I have been able to do is to ascertain that the definition of lieutenant is "one who holds office instead of another" (which tends to support the lieu faction).  Thank you in anticipation of your assistance.

Not just "anyone" can help you, sir.  We at Take Our Word For It can.  You are correct in your assumption that the lieu in lieutentant means "place".  A lieutentant acted in place of his immediate supervisor.  This word dates back to the 14th century, when it entered English from French lieutenant, which was formed from lieu "place" and tenant  "a holding" (whence English tenant).  Lieu came to French (and also English, in the 13th century, within in lieu of) via Latin locus "place".  Lieutenant was sometimes spelled with an f as far back as the 14th century, indicating that the British pronunciation is quite old.   It is thought that such pronunciation was influenced by the word leave, perhaps as a lieutenant's superior had to leave before the lieutenant could serve his purpose.  Some cognates are lieu, local, and tenant.


From Salvador Martinovich:

In terms of the etymology of the words observe and observation what does it mean to observe something.

A close relative of conserve, reserve and deserve, observe comes from the Latin observare, "to watch", "to attend to" and has been in the English language since the late 14th century.   Observare was a compound derived from ob-, "onto", "towards" + servare "to keep, tend or pay heed to".

We noticed that you asked for the meaning "in terms of the etymology".  It should be clearly understood that while etymology provides the history of a word and, in doing so, may note many changes of meaning over time, it is not a search for the "real" or "true" meanings of words.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

While writing up observe this week, we noticed that it is an anagram of obverse.  Now, when an object has two sides (like a coin) it is the front side (like heads on a coin) which is called the obverse. Despite the usage of many modern speakers, obverse is not a fancy name for reverse.  Quite the reverse, in fact.


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