Lyrics & Lexicon: 12 Days of Christmas

Partridge in a Pear Tree

The likelihood of finding a partridge in a pear tree is slim, and not just because partridges aren't big fruit eaters; partridges are ground-nesting birds, preferring to avoid soaring journeys and high perches. The word comes to us from the Greek perdix, which meant "to break wind," likely referring to the sound of a bird’s wings.

Two Turtledoves

In addition to a bird with a long, graduated tail and soft, cooing call, the word turtledove can be used to refer to a sweetheart or beloved mate. The latter sense likely arose out of the bird's tendency to form strong, affectionate bonds in pairs, a trait that has been invoked in literature for centuries. William Shakespeare's 1601 poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle" alluded to this devotion in a tale of love between a phoenix and a turtledove.

Three French Hens

With two turtledoves and a partridge already in your pocket, three French hens might seem like the last thing you need. But if your true love gives you three poulets de Bresse, the most esteemed French hen of them all, then you should probably accept. The word hen comes to us from West Germanic han(e)ni, literally “bird who sings for sunrise,” and is sometimes disparagingly used to refer to a gossipy woman, or more generally, to any woman. In the UK, a hen night is a bachelorette party.

Four Calling Birds

Most of us sing this line as "calling birds," but in the 1780 version of this song, the line was "colly birds," likely referencing their color. Around the time this song was published, colly was used in British dialects to mean "dirtied, grimy, or coal black." Frederic Austin's 1909 version of "Twelve Days of Christmas" replaced colly with calling on the fourth day, and it stuck.

Five Golden Rings

The word gold has been used for centuries to describe the valuable metal, but it has a more humble origin. It ultimately shares a root with the word gall (meaning “bile”) as they are both from the pre-Germanic root ghel-, which meant simply “yellow.” In the song this lyric was original “gold rings,” rather than “golden rings.”

Six Geese a Laying

Another day of Christmas, another flock of birds--or in this case a gaggle. Perhaps indicative of a fascination with the temperamental animal, the word goose has many colorful meanings. It can refer to the female web-footed swimming bird, a foolish person, a tailor’s curved-handle iron, or a poke between the buttocks to startle someone, not to mention the fun idiom wild-goose chase, which refers to a wild or absurd search for something unattainable.

Seven Swans a Swimming

Though your fowl capacity might be surpassed by now, there are still reasons to be grateful: at least this seventh-day gift is not seven swans a singing, the result of which would surely classify as a swan song, a more ominous gift than anyone wants at Christmastime. The word swan is related to the Old English geswin, which means "melody, song," and swinsian, which means "to make melody."

Eight Maids a Milking

The milking done on the eighth day of Christmas is almost certainly done with the best intentions, but since this song’s appearance in the late 1700s, the verb milk has been used for a of range of actions, often exploitative or dishonest in nature: in cards, to milk the pack means to shadily deal cards by pulling them from both the top and bottom of the deck; to milk at the horse race was to throw a horse race, and milk also picked up the meaning of “to bug a telephone.”

Nine Ladies Dancing

The word lady comes to us from the Old English hlæfdige meaning literally “one who kneads bread” or more broadly “wife of a lord.” The word dance came to English around the year 1300 from the Old French dancier. It replaced the Old English word for dance, sealtian.

Ten Lords a Leaping

Today this word today refers to a male head of household and even to a higher power, but the word lord comes from the Old English word hlafweard which literally meant “loaf-keeper.” In this sense loaf-keeper reflected the societal model in which the head of household kept the bread and his family and servants ate the bread.

Eleven Pipers Piping

The word pipe meaning “to play on a pipe” can be traced back to the Latin pipare, meaning “to peep, chirp.” This was the first of many verb senses that arose for the word, including “to make a shrill sound like a pipe,” “to lead or bring by playing on a pipe,” and in baking, “to force dough or frosting through a pastry tube.”

Twelve Drummers Drumming

The word drum is a back formation of the longer word drumslade, which is from the Dutch or Low German word trommelslag, which meant “drum beat.”

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