Language Tip of the Month: Mistletoe / le Gui
FRENCH LANGUAGE :
STRANGE VOCAB! Mistletoe: du gui
The festive themed strange vocab for this month is the word for “mistletoe” in French, which is “le gui“, [pronounced \ɡi\ , which rhymes with “key” in English for those of us who don’t understand the phonetic alphabet]. However, for once, the strange side of this translation comes from the fact that the origins of English word are a little strange.
The etymology of “le gui” has la classe of the latin roots of the word for the plant. It’s from the latin viscum, which is the latin name for the plant which we now know as mistletoe, with the Germanic influence which turned it into wiscu, then gwy and eventually we got guy and then gui.
But then we look at “mistletoe” in English, which, obviously, sounds nothing like “gui”. It is a word we get from the Ancient Anglo-Saxons, who noticed that mistletoe tends to grow where birds leave droppings, little tiny bird Christmas presents if you will: so here’s a breakdown of how we got “mistletoe” from that:
Anglo-Saxon “mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” so essentially: “dung-on-a-twig”.
What could be more romantic?
Ah yes, the romance of mistletoe comes into play as well. Why exactly do people kiss under mistletoe? What’s all that about? Well, many ancient cultures and peoples valued mistletoe for its healing properties, so it’s always been nice to have around, but its romantic qualities probably stemmed from the fact that 1st century Celtic druids came to view it as a symbol of vitality and fertility due the fact that it blossoms even in the bleak midwinter, so they administered it to people and animals in need of a little help with their fertility.
And so this connotation continued throughout the ages and fertility turned into romance and so on, to the point that, by the 1700s in England, it become a custom to hang it up and then to kiss under it. Originally, men were allowed to kiss any woman who found herself underneath mistletoe, whether she wanted to or not (note: we strongly endorse consent at all times, taking inspiration from this is not encouraged because it would be creepy and also weird), and it was seen as bad luck for anyone to refuse the kiss. Rumour has it that people even plucked the berries off one by one and carried on kissing until they were all gone. It really does seem like an elaborate ploy made up by one humble stable boy who had a crush on a chambermaid and so made up all these rules on the spot, but you know what? It’s a nice tradition so who cares who started it.
So then we move on to look at our other festive plant friend: holly, which in French is “le houx” (pronounced /u/, or “ooh”, without pronouncing the “h”; essentially the noise you make when you see a delicious food which you might like – “ooh, is that a cheese board?” – you get the picture). For this word the anglophones and the French are united, because “houx” and “holly” both derive from the old Frankish “hulis”, from a Germanic “hulisaz”, meaning butcher’s broom, forest thistle, or holly. In Scandinavia it’s known as “Christ Thorn” because its prickles symbolise Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries his blood. But that’s a bit bleak, so let’s look on the lighter side of it, which is that, with another of the evergreen team, ivy, holly is a symbol of new growth since it stays green in the depths of winter and was thought to ward away evil spirits and symbolise life.
Whatever evergreen plant you choose to celebrate with this winter, we hope it wards away evil spirits for you.