Today’s word is one we’ve come to associate with Christmas, with one of the most common traditional Christmas carols beginning: “The first Noel the angel did say”. Though we all know the term, answering the question of how it entered into English is a bit confusing. While some will answer that it’s “just the French word for Christmas” – which it essentially is – the way in which it got imported into English is actually older and deeper than you would expect.
Originally coming from the Old French noel, a term for the Christmas season, the root of our word can be found in the Latin natalis, meaning ‘birth’, which, thanks to Church Latin, is a reference to the birth of Christ.
The first importing of our word came in the form of the Anglo-French nowel/nouel, presumably spelled differently to mimic the French pronunciation. With a first allusion that can be traced back to Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale circa 1395, and a first direct usage linked to Christmas that dates to circa 1400, in the Arthurian story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, writing that: “Loud cry was there cast of clerics and others, Nowell nurtured anew, and named full oft.”, the first iteration of this French term appeared as the Anglicised “Nowell.” It would be another several decades before the now more commonly known form would appear in Nicholas H. Nicholas’ 1835 work, Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, which mentions a 1435 entry stating: “To be paid by him for the wages..from the feast of Saint Michael last unto Noel then next following by a quarter.”
In terms of Christmas carols, composer Thomas Busby’s A Complete Dictionary of Music, written in 1786, references: “Noels, certain canticles, or songs of joy, formerly sung at Christmas in the country churches in France.” Yet, on the other hand, the first publication of the Christmas carol mentioned above, in William Sandys’ 1833 work, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern is written as: “The first Nowell the Angel did say Was to three poor shepherds.”
Adding to this, the last few decades have witnessed a second, more direct importation of the French holiday terminology (joyeux noël), which was first remarked on in the Letters (1994) of writer and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who wrote on 19 December 1953: “Thank you again, and a joyous noël.”
Regardless of what spelling or importation of the word you decide to use, thankfully the underlying sentiment of peace, goodwill, and merriment of this festive and wondrous season will always remain the same.
And with that, a joyeux Noël from the entire EVS Translations team!