Depending on where you live, the winter holidays come at a time of year that is cold, dark, and not very pleasant. What makes it all bearable, though, is that you can get together with friends and family to share meals, exchange gifts, and just hang out.
But, what happens when the conversation starts to run dry? Don’t fret, we put together a list of some of our favorite word facts about winter vocab for the next time you need that festive conversation starter.
We think of winter simply as a season—one that comes after fall and before spring (unless you live in Florida, in which case it’s something you see in movies and laugh about).
But for the Anglo-Saxon people, counting winters was a way of expressing the passage of a time. For example, a one-year-old baby was known as ánwintre, or “one-winter.”
How many winters old are you?
Frost is cold, chilling even. When you see a white, icy sheen on your window you know you’re in for a nippy day.
But the origins of the word frost tell us a lot about what it’s like to be cold. Like, really cold.
The word frost is found in Old English, and is related to the word freeze. But, historical linguists think the far more ancient origin of these words is the Proto-Indo-European root preus-, meaning “freeze,” but, perhaps surprisingly, also its opposite: “burn.”
This might seem strange until you learn that when you touch something really, really cold, it can feel like you’re being burnt. Think about it … but don’t try it! We’re definitely not recommending you try it!
The word snowman has, so far, only been recorded in English since the 1820s. However, people have been making little men out of snow for centuries.
According to Bob Eckstein, the author of The History of the Snowman, the first snowman depiction was found in the margins of a manuscript from 1380. But the most impressive snowman in history was possibly the one made by the artist Michelangelo in 1494, said to be a “dry run” of his marble statue, David.
When the weather is terrible outside, it’s lovely to be warm and cozy indoors. It makes sense, then, that the word cozy is believed to come from a place known for its wild wintery weather, Scotland.
According to the Scottish National Dictionary, cozy (or cozie as it was sometimes spelled, among other forms) was popularized by the 18th-century poet Robert Burns. An example comes from his poem “To a Mouse”:
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell …
In winter, people like to hibernate, or go somewhere they can wait out the winter. That’s actually what the word originally referred to: staying somewhere over the winter months (like grandparents who go to Florida).
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, took an interest in animals who hibernated by slowing down their metabolisms and going dormant all winter, such as bears. Many credit him for first using the term hibernation for this phenomenon.
Apparently natural science ran in the Darwin family!
Fun fact: the word hibernate is rooted in the Latin hībernus, meaning “wintry.”
If you live somewhere that gets a lot of snow, you might be familiar with sledding on toboggans.
A toboggan is a kind of flat-bottomed sled. The toboggan was invented by subarctic indigenous peoples, where it was essential for transport in snow-bound places.
The word comes from the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy tʰapákən and Micmac topaĝan, which are Algonquian languages. The form toboggan may have been influenced by French forms.
By 1929, toboggan also came to refer to a beanie-looking wool knit cap many wear while tobogganing.
You might have heard people refer to Christmas as Yule and wondered where the word comes from.
Yule comes from a name for a 12-day festival, celebrated by Germanic peoples, around the winter solstice in December and January. Among Nordic peoples, where this festival was called jol in Old Norse, Yule was connected with the all-powerful god Odin.
In the year 221, the Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus identified December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. The historically pagan Yule fell around the same time as the Christian Christmas (which eventually spread throughout Europe), and so over time, Yule became associated with Christmas.
In fact, by the time Yule is recorded in Old English, the word was already synonymous with “Christmas.”
Speaking of the winter solstice, that word also has an interesting history.
The word solstice comes from the Latin solsititum, effectively meaning “the sun standing still.” That might seem confusing because the winter solstice, which happens around Christmas every year, is actually the shortest day of the year.
What gives? During the winter solstice, the North Pole is at its farthest point form the sun due to the tilt of Earth’s axis. This makes it looks like the sun moves over the course of the day until abruptly stopping (standing still) and changing its direction.
Since ancient times, the solstices have marked seasonal change and times to celebrate, like Yule.
Eggnog is a controversial favorite in some holiday celebrations. The drink, made with eggs and heavy cream, is often spiked with bourbon or other alcohol. Some people find it gross and some people love it, but there’s no denying that eggnog has a long history.
Historians believe that eggnog is a twist on a drink called posset made with hot milk and alcohol that was common in the Middle Ages. In fact, the word nog originally referred to a kind of beer or strong ale in eastern England.
While today eggnog doesn’t always include alcohol, it certainly did when the word was first attested in the United States in mid-1700s.
Fun fact: there is also a National Eggnog Day. It’s Christmas Eve (surprise, surprise).
Our favorite part of the ballet The Nutcracker (1892) is the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” We have to be honest though, we’ve never actually eaten a sugarplum. So, where does this word come from, and how did it come to be associated with Christmas?
Well, sugarplum is a word that dates to the early 1600s. It was originally used to describe any kind of boiled sugar candy, often with a nut or seat in the center. They were not, according to culinary historians, made from actual plums, but were small and round, like plums. And in slang, plum has been associated with all sorts of sweet things.
Just like today, Christmastime was often when children (and adults) would enjoy all kinds of sweets, apparently including sugarplums.
Fun fact: while we associate sugarplums with The Nutcracker, they also appear in the popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823) in the line “While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Not familiar with this poem? It begins: “‘Twas the night before Christmas …”
As you can see, the histories of words are full of surprising facts. Maybe there are some your family members know that will also surprise you too.