or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

December 25th

I'm fairly certain that it was my fifth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Feltham, who told us that we must never say "Xmas" instead of "Christmas", because "X" in algebra stood for "the unknown" and it was insulting to Jesus.

Yeah, really. Really and truly.

I know I don't need to tell any of you how foolish that is, right? Even if there was a historical Jesus, and even if he were still around somehow to care about having his name taken in vain (in which case I suppose I'm in a lot of trouble), he wouldn't mind "Xmas" instead of "Christmas", not even a tiny bit. Why? Because in this instance, "X-" represents the word "Christ". No algebra in sight at all!

"X" in Greek isn't the same as "x" in English. In the Greek alphabet, what looks like our "x" is in fact called "chi", and represents the sound "ch-" or "kh-". ("Kh-" is pretty rare in English: as a pair of letters, it occurs mostly as accidental conjunctions of letters in compounds, such as "steakhouse" and "jackhammer", and as a sound, a somewhat guttural "k-" sound with a breath after it, in borrowed words such as "astrakhan" and "ankh".) The Greek version of "Christ" is Χριστος, which we may transliterate as "christos". (If you don't know any Greek, as I really don't, you may examine the word "Χριστος" and say, "Hey! There are two different symbols that are supposed to represent the letter 's'! You're putting us on!" The truth is that there are in fact two slightly different written versions of the same letter, the sort of difference that used to exist in English in the form of the two different esses: the long ess, which looks very like a lower-case "f" to modern eyes, used at the beginning and in the middle of words, and the short ess, identical to the modern ess, which was used at the end of a word.)

So "Xmas" is just a standard abbreviation for "Christmas", and there isn't any disrespect intended. Anybody tries to give you grief for it, you just read them to filth and walk away with your head held high.

The "-mas" in "Xmas" is just as interesting, you know. Obviously--everybody knows this part--it means "mass", meaning "sacrament", but where does the word "mass" in that sense come from itself? It clearly can't have any relationship to the usual sense of "mass"--a quantity, bulk, or collection of something.

And it doesn't. It stems instead from Vulgar Latin "messa" (French "messe"), which comes from Latin "missa", which is part of the phrase "Ite, missa est", which was once used to terminate a Catholic church service. It's the priest's way of saying, "You are dismissed", or "Go on now while we clean the censers", or whatever. "Missa" in turn is derived from the verb "mittere", "to send away", and in fact "dismiss" comes from this same source.


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