Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Well, you know why the word's come up just now, I suppose. But actually, I think the reason it didn't just get buried in the standard Christmas greeting is that some friends gave me a Christmas card with their very photogenic kids on it and all it said was "Be Merry". Which I liked. But it did get me to wondering about the word itself. Even though it's not spelled the same way, is there some hint of Mary in the meaning?

No. There is not. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English word was myrge, meaning pleasant, agreeable or sweet. It comes from the proto-German *murgijaz, which seems to have something to do with the idea of being short-lasting, apparently in the sense of making the time fly.

In America, the word merry doesn't seem to be much in vogue anymore, with the exception of Christmastime. There is a sense of England lingering in it more than most somehow, perhaps because of being attached to things like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the Merry Wives of Windsor.

However, of course there is a word which has merry in it which is very familiar in the U.S. that doesn't bring up English associations.

Yep, merry-go-round. It turns out that Middle English was very expansive in its use of merry, using it to mean (again according to the Online Etymology Dictionary): "pleasant-sounding" (of animal voices), "fine" (of weather), "handsome" (of dress), "pleasant-tasting" (of herbs). It was also a time when it got joined to a lot of other words, merry-go-round being the main one that stuck. But there are others that are equally engaging: "merry-go-down" for strong ale, "merry-begot" for an illegitimate birth, "merry-go-sorry" for a mixture of joy and sorrow.

I couldn't get the idea out of my head, though, that Shakespeare had used merry a lot to begin a piece of dialogue. Well, I found a concordance and it turned out that he did use merry a lot, just not in that way. In pages of examples, I only found one that supported my sense of it--"Marry, amen." in Twelfth Night. And it's not clear if that's an example of what I was thinking of. So I was about to give up and accept that I was imagining things when I suddenly realized that maybe he hadn't spelled it that way. Checking the same concordance, it turns out that he uses marry in the way I mean frequently. "Marry, that's a bountiful answer that fits all questions." (Twelfth Night). "Marry, hang  you!" (All's Well That Ends Well). This marry means something like "I agree", or "indeed", or "well", and as I suspected, related to Mary. Originally it was a sort of euphemistic oath based on the corruption of her name. So I was right, but I had the wrong merry.

Marry, have a jolly old Christmas, will you?


And if the Nativity's not your thing,  you can still have a nice old merry-go-down anyway.


  1. "merry-go-down" for strong ale, "merry-begot" for an illegitimate birth."

    I shall try to work these into conversation as soon as possible.

    Interesting you should mention the English connection, because I think of "Happy Christmas" as the standard English Christmas greeting, as opposed to our "Merry Christmas." At all events, I hope your Christmas was both.

  2. I think you're right--the English expression that I've seen is more Happy than Merry for Christmas. Over in my neck of the woods, Merry Christmas, being non-inclusive seems to be giving way to Happy Holidays. I understand the reasons but its a bit innocuous.

    Yes, we've had a good Christmas here and I hope yours was as well.

  3. The "Happy Holidays" thing is pretty silly, isn't it? One is. say, on a bus on Christmas Day, when the only people traveling are bound for Christmas dinner, and "Happy Holidays" just thuds on the ear (unless it grates).

    I ran into a friend a Reading Terminal Market where I was shopping Christmas Eve. He was shopping for a big Christmas dinner he was to cook the next day, for which he had had a last-minute cancellation. I was more than happy to step into the breach. So,yes, I had a happy, merry Christmas and, if hot mulled cider with rum, followed at the appropriate times by Riesling and vintage port count, a merry go-down as well.

  4. A lovely post, Seana.

    Do Americans wish one another "Happy Saint Stephen's Day"?

    I use "Merry Christmas" quite a bit and it's not so old fashioned, I think.

    Wishing you every happiness during this excellent Christmas tide. It's so dark in Ireland at the moment, Christmas keeps us all awake.

  5. Peter, that sounds like a lucky meeting. I've been up at my sister's, the one you haven't met, as my nephew has been home from college and there are a small assortment of other regulars as well. It's more low key than the old days, but still pretty merry.

  6. Maria, I don't think anyone has ever greeted me "Happy St. Stephens day." I say Merry Christmas quite a bit too, but try to throw in any other holidays that may be looming if I think of it.

    Yes, it's dark enough early here, but having been in England in winter, I have a sense of how very much darkness there is in late December where you are.

  7. It was a most fortunate chance meeting.