Hurrah! December is here. Christmas is approaching, celebration is in the air. Time to deck those halls with boughs of holly!
But wait. What is this holly we are using to decorate the home? Where does it come from? Not the plant, of course, for that you can find a botanical site. Here we shall look at the word itself.
You may be considering its resemblance to holy and wondering if they are related. Well, wonder no longer. I can put your mind at rest. There is no connection, and today’s similarities are purely coincidental.
Holly can easily be traced to Middle English, where, as you may by now have come to expect, there was a variety of spellings, such as holin, holinge, holun, holi, holli, holie and holien. This is not just because some are later than others, and the word had evolved, it is also a reflection of the non-standardised spellings.
This can be amply demonstrated if we compare these two examples. The first is from 1475, from a collection of English carols:
Holy hat berys, as rede as any rose.
(Holly has berries as red as any rose)
You may well recognize that particular carol. But setting that aside for the time being, let’s compare the word holly in this next example. It is from 1470, from the Works of Sir Thomas Malory.
He syghe hym sytte undir a tre of hooly.
(He saw him sit under a holly tree)
These examples are only five years apart, and you can easily see that the word has been spelt differently.
Now let’s continue tracing our word on its journey through time. We are still in the period of Middle English, but some 240 years earlier, leaping back to 1230 and a mention for holly in the Ancrene Wisse, also known as the Ancrene Riwle, a sort of manual for anchoresses.
Wið holin ne wið breres
(With holly or with brambles)
In this earlier example, holly still has its final /n/. This has carried over from Old English, as we shall see here, in this brief mention in the Codex Exoniensis (the Exeter Book), which dates to the 10th century.
Holen sceal in æled
(Holly shall to the fire)
Similarly, I found it as a compound noun, Holenleáfa, meaning ‘holly leaves’ in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings dating to the ninth century.
Can we trace it any further back, before Old English? We can indeed. German gives us Hulst, with the same word appearing in Dutch, from Old High German we take hulis, while Old Norse has hulfr. All of these have helped to find the root in the language that gave rise to all of those, known as Proto-Germanic, and the root in question is *hulin.
Perhaps you may be surprised to learn that this is cognate, or related to Middle Irish cuilenn and Welsh celyn. Try pronouncing ‘hulin’ with a heavy aspiration, or harsh breathing on the /h/, and it may be easier to see the connection.
All of these are thought to come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel-, meaning ‘to prick’; one glance at holly leaves will tell you why!
Finally, this brings me onto my own cause for celebration this Christmas: the publication of my book Christmas in Greece.
Continuing the story of Lucy the InstaExplorer, this book transports young readers, pre-teens and young teens, into a magical season of traditions and festivities, as Lucy struggles to learn the language while discovering local Christmas folklore and sampling its delicacies.
Christmas in Greece is available here: