Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Here we Come A-Wassailing

The Wassail Song has been a popular Christmas carol 
for over a century now,
but its roots had little to do with Christmas.
Tracing the history of the term "wassailing" 
leads one on a fascinating trip through British history.

photo courtesy of morguefile.com

After the Romans departed the Island,
its Celtic inhabitants were beset by Germanic and Scandinavian invaders.
By the 9th century, the Danes, who had besieged the Island
 after the Anglo-Saxons settled there,
were defeated for a time and permitted to establish permanent settlements 
along Britain's east coast in an area then known as the Danelaw.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributes wassail to the Danes
since there are no indications of its root words 
in Old English or Old German.
In Old Norse, there is the correlated salutation sitheil or "sit in health."

Despite the mystery of its beginnings, 
what is known of the etymology of waissal 
provides a glimpse into politeness conventions of earlier centuries. 
According to the OED, the first reference to wassail or wes heil 
comes in Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of Rowena 
in his 12th-century work Historia Regum Brittaniae.

The terms are referenced again by Wace, 
a 12th-century Norman French poet and priest of Bayeux, in his Roman de Rou.
Wace relates that the night before the Battle of  Hastings,
the loss of which plunged Britain into 300 years of French rule,
the English allegedly passed the hours before battle in drinking and revelry;
 shouts of  "weissel" and "drincheheil" echoed across the night.

photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Weissel or weisse heil was used by the English as a salutation
when drinking to one's health or good fortune. 
Weissel was said when offering the drink, 
with the appropriate response being drincheheil, 
meaning drink good health and good fortune in turn.

In language, it's common to shift the part of speech of a word,
so the directive verb weissel 
was easily converted to the noun "waissal" 
and then back again to a verb by affixing the -ing ending.

But one might ask how the affix "a" became attached to waissaling,
so that carolers sing "here we come a-wassailing,"
or for that matter, why some dialects favor verbs like 
"a-going," "a-coming," or "a-fixing."
That is an interesting story of English as well.
I'll share it in tomorrow's blog.

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