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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Where does the word nativity come from?

The word derives from the Latin 'natal' meaning birth (1200–50; ME nativite < OF nativité < LL nātīvitās). Natal is also the source of several other English words, including native and nature.

While pre-natal is the standard medical term and in common use, nativity (the Nativity) is almost exclusively used in the religious/iconic sense, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as follows:
Nativity scene in Barcelona
 the birth of Jesus Christ/a picture, carving, or model representing Jesus Christ’s birth:
[as modifier]: a little crib surrounded with nativity figures: the Christian festival of Christ’s birth; Christmas.

What is the cultural significance of the Nativity?

For Christians Easter rather than the Nativity is not the central event in the church calendar. Nonetheless, Advent - the four Sundays leading up to Christmas - is a very important period because represents: 
  • the beginning of the church year. 
  • the time when the the religious and the secular worlds are most closely aligned
  • an opportunity to reach out to the wider community. Many non-believers will happily attend the Nativity plays that are put on in most British primary school, for example. 
The Nativity is the best known story in the Christian tradition. The key elements: the baby Jesus, Mary & Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi (Wise Men/Three Kings, the manger - have near universal recognition.

Do Christians agree on the meaning of the Nativity?

 The Nativity the subject of theological dispute
The Nativity of Jesus, also The Nativity, refers to the accounts of the birth of Jesus, primarily based on the two accounts in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and secondarily on some apocryphal texts. The word is anglicized from Latin De nativitate Iesu, a section title in the Vulgate.
The ... gospels of Luke and Matthew describe Jesus being born in Bethlehem, in Judea, to a virgin mother. Luke features the Christmas story, in which Joseph and Mary, as part of a census, travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born and laid in a manger.
Angels proclaim him a savior for all people, and shepherds come to adore him. In Matthew, wise men follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the King of the Jews. King Herod massacres all the toddler boys in Bethlehem to kill Jesus, but the holy family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth. 
Scholars debate whether these two accounts can be reconciled or not, and some view the narratives as non-historical. Source
What is Frankinsense? And Myrrh

A Paul McCartney story about the young John Lennon's late night encounter with a Nativity scene inspired this fun Fred & Rita playscript.
Christmas Carol Teaching Pack
More Christmas-related posts

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Did Dickens Invent Christmas?

Christmas is of course a celebration of a certain event in Bethlehem.  But Charles Dickens helped establish the secular elements of the festival we celebrate today. The enormous success of A Christmas Carol transformed existing minority customs into universal ones. 

What was Christmas like in Dickens' day?

Christmas Day ... bound together all our home enjoyments, affections and hopes  
At the time of the publication of A Christmas Carol (1843) Christmas was essentially a religious holiday. It officially lasted twelve days ( 'on the first day of Christmas, my true love ...)  but most of the activities associated with it took place in church on the night of Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas Day. 

Though many employers allowed their workers a second day off for Stephen's Day (Boxing Day in the UK) Scrooge was not unusual in insisting that Bob Cratchitt return to his bench early on the 26th.

Snow on Christmas Eve is relatively rare in London. But as Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, during the first eight years of his life "there was a white Christmas every year."  

Was Christmas a popular festival before Dickens?

By the C17th, Christmas had become a holiday of celebration and enjoyment - especially after the problems caused by the civil war. Cromwell wanted it returned to a religious celebration where people thought about the birth of Jesus rather than ate and drank too much. 

In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned. source

Dickens offers a romantic and inclusive alternative to Cromwellian puritanism - and he had the public on his side. 

A Christmas Carol tapped into a hunger for what historian Ronald Hutton calls ‘a family-centered festival of generosity’.  

Christmas Dinner - the event which symbolises Scrooge's redemption  - became the centrepiece of a new mode of celebration.

Which Christmas 'traditions' did Dickens popularise?

•    Family Celebration (including games like Blind Man Buff, Charades etc)
•    Food (mince pies, Christmas 'figgy' pudding etc)
•    Charity – giving money to good causes at Christmas
•    Christmas greetings – (‘Merry Christmas!') 
•    Generosity of spirit - (the opposite of ‘Bah Humbug!’)

By a strange coincidence the Christmas greetings  card also appeared for the first time in 1843. And though there are only fleeting references to Christmas Carols in the original novel, the singing of Christmas songs became inextricably linked with Dickens.

But wasn't Christmas a Pagan festival?

The Victorian Christmas also returned to its pagan roots as a mid-winter festival - holly, ivy, snow and red robins did not accompany the birth of Jesus in balmy Bethlehem.

It would, however, be mistaken to see A Christmas Carol as a rejection of the core religious character of the festival. The central theme - Scrooge's fall and redemption - is directly from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Fred & Rita: Christmas Ghost Story (playscript/worksheet)
A Christmas Carol Teaching Pack 
Aimed at inexperienced/reluctant readers & English language learners

Thursday, 11 December 2014

When did we start saying 'Merry Christmas'?

There are references to 'mery' Christmas from the 1500s and the carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen was first published in 1833. But the two key events which established Merry Christmas as one of the most commonly used expressions in the English language both occurred in 1843.

Christmas Cards

The first was the publication of a commercially produced Christmas card with slogan 'Merry Christmas'. Exchanging cards quickly became one of the Victorian 'traditions' of Christmas. Merry Christmas was the Christmas card default message - as it still is today.

Bah Humbug?

But it was the publication of 'A Christmas Carol' on December 17, 1843, which cemented the phrase in the popular imagination.  Charles Dickens' masterpiece was a publishing phenomenon immediate and it's lasting popularity gave the phrase a universal dimension. 

In this and other respects Dickens can be said to have invented the modern, secular Christmas festival - see here.

More Christmas-related posts
Did Dickens invent the modern Christmas?
Fred Follows the Star: A Christmas ghost story?
English FAQ Teaching Pack  
A Christmas Carol Teaching Pack 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Scrooge says 'Bah! Humbug!'? What is humbug?

For Scrooge (and Scrooge McDuck!) Christmas is 'humbug' - a fraudulent commercial trick aimed at 'picking a man's pocket'. And this was at a time when the Christmas shopping season began late Christmas Eve!

Here is an abridged version of the key passage from A Christmas Carol. Fred is trying to persuade his Uncle Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner.

What does Scrooge mean?
In general English 'humbug' describes insincere or hypocritical speech - Scrooge accuses all around him of only pretending to be interested in the plight of the poor.

But what is a humbug?
In British English, a striped candy/sweet. It's boiled and hard  enough to crack a tooth. Dentists cry, 'Bah! Humbug! - all the way to the bank. 
More on A Christmas Carol

 A Christmas Carol Teaching Pack 
Aimed at inexperienced/reluctant readers & English language learners
More Christmas-related posts

Friday, 5 December 2014

What are hashtags? Where does the word come from?

Hashtags are used on Twitter and other social media like Instagram, Faceboot etc. It labels the subject of a tweet/post to make it easier to find in searches. A Twitter search for hashtags, for example, will bring up tweets containing #hashtag.

The # symbol was originally used to represent weight in pounds (it is still known as the pound sign by older users). It then appeared as the octothorpe on the early touch phones designed by engineers at Bell Labs in the 1960s.

Hashtags becoming steadily more familiar with the advent of automated switchboards, computer keyboards and mobile phones. But it was when Chris Messina persuaded the newly emerging Twitter to adopt hashtags that the sign became #everpresent. Famously Messina didn't bother to patent his idea which is why everyone is free to sprinkle their posts with them (I am a particularly bad offender!).

Using hashtags well is a tricky skill. Politicians tend to go for tedious platitudes (#hardworking) while there is a big market for amusing trivia - see #CareerEndingTwitterTypos for example or  #1LetterWrongMovie

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Top 10 words with most OED entries? What do they have in common?

Set  is the word with the most (464) entries in the OED - and has been since 1928. 

Why set? 
The key is the word's versatility. Set can be used as a concrete verb e.g. set an alarm on a clock or an abstract one Mr Smith is set to take over as Prime Minister or an abstract noun a set of problems.

Phrasal verbs based on set (set out/set to/set off etc) are particularly challenging for English language learners - see here.

And the full top 10?
  1. set - 464 definitions
  2. run - 396
  3. go - 368
  4. take - 343
  5. stand -334
  6. get - 289
  7. turn - 288
  8. put - 268
  9. fall - 264
  10. strike - 250   Source
What do these words have in common?
  • They can all be used as verbs
  • All but one of these verbs ('turn') is irregular 
English Language 100 FAQ Teaching Pack  only £1.99 using discount code CQDWKF0
OED Update - 2014

Monday, 17 November 2014

How did Latin words first enter English?

Perhaps surprisingly the Roman occupation of Britain had little initial impact on the development of the English language. Only place names like London, Bath & Chester indicate the official language of the occupiers.

It was with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th and 7th centuries that significant numbers of Latin words began entering the lexicon. Latin was  the lingua franca or common language of the Christian world, with the mass or service  being conducted in Latin. 

Other religious words like abbot, altar, apostle & candle gradually came into common use.

The Oxford History of English

English Language 100 FAQ Teaching Pack  only £1.99 using discount code CQDWKF0