The Grammarphobia Blog

The first Noel

Q: I have a Christmas question. A French friend who’s a word hound maintains that the word “noel” is derived from “Emmanuel,” another name for Jesus Christ. Is this true?

A: Your French friend is on the wrong scent.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “noel” entered English in the 14th century as an interjection, “a word shouted or sung: expressing joy, originally to commemorate the birth of Christ.”

Here’s the first recorded use in writing, from Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (1395): “And Nowel crieth euery lusty man.”

The Anglo-Norman spelling “nowel” and similar ones, by the way, survived in poetic usage into the 20th century.

The source of our English word was the Middle French nouel, later spelled noel or noël.

But the French got it from Latin, in which the adjective natalis means natal or pertaining to birth.

In post-classical Latin, according to the OEDnatalis referred to the “annual festival of the church.”

In the 1400s, “noel” was first used to mean the feast of Christmas. And in the 1700s, it was first used to mean a Christmas carol.

The name “Emmanuel,” also spelled “Immanuel” or “Imanu’el,” dates from long before Christ. The OED says it’s derived from Hebrew for “God is with us.”

In case you’re interested in more Christmas reading, we had a blog item a few years ago about who’s responsible for the “X” in “Xmas.”

You can learn why there’s nothing irreverent in our wishing you a merry Xmas.

Check out our books about the English language