Trend Watch

Lookups for 'Noel' Spike Every December

The word means 'Christmas' or 'Christmas carol'

Lookups for noel increased sharply in December, as they do every year. Noel means either "the holiday of Christmas" (in which case it typically will be capitalized) or "a Christmas carol" (in which case it typically will not be capitalized).

The word comes to our language directly from a French word, noël; there is no need to use a diaeresis when spelling the English word. The word can ultimately be traced back to the Latin word natalis, meaning “birthday,” or “of or relating to birth." Thus, noel shares ancestry with a number of English words which do not necessarily make people think of mistletoe and Santa Claus, such as neonatal and postnatal.

Although Noel is an old word, with use as a term for Christmas extending back to the 15th century, it was not used to refer to carols until the end of the 18th century. If you are one of those people who does not overmuch enjoy either the holiday season or the singing of children, you will be glad to know that our earliest citation using noel with the meaning of “carol” is a complaint about the urchins who sing them:

The noels, or carols, are also spiritual songs that are designed to celebrate the nativity of the Saviour of the world. But it must be confessed, that the very common use that is made of these noels, by children who sing them through the streets, and on the highways, is an abuse; and moreover, that in these hymns there is frequently a mixture of the sacred and trifling, the edifying and profane, in a manner that does but badly sort with the dignity of the subject.
—J. F. Bielfeld (trans. W. Hooper), The Elements of Universal Erudition, 1771

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