or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, December 03, 2010

Christmas Kiss

I've just started reading Darwin's "On The Origin of Species"--high time, you might think--and was startled to see a spelling I had never encountered before: "misseltoe".

The word is more usually spelled "mistletoe", of course, but "misseltoe" seemed reasonable enough--not a typo, not a nonce spelling, but a previous or coexisting version of the word.

Since I couldn't think of any parallels to it ("missal" came to mind, of course, but without even bothering to look it up you can tell it must obviously come from Latin "missa", "[religious] mass"), I guessed that "misseltoe" was an earlier spelling, and the modern "mistletoe" had come about by way of analogy to "thistle". And my guess was quite wrong.

In fact, "mistel" was the Old English word for "mistletoe", sometimes lengthened to "misteltan", "tan" meaning "twig". Just as the "-t-" can be silent in such words as "thistle" and "gristle", it became silent in "mistel", which began to be spelled "missel" in addition to "mistel", and eventually "mistle-" as the ending degenerated from "-tan" to "-ta" and then eventually swelling back up to "-toe". In fact, the OED lists thirty-three different spellings for the word--"misselden", "myscelto", "misleden", and "messelto" are a few--and even though we expect dictionaries to lock down a single approved spelling, it's a miracle we could just settle on one. I'm surprised we don't have three or four parallel and acceptable versions of the word.

Just as "missal" is clearly unrelated, so too is "missile", from Latin "mittere", "to send", the source of such words as "transmit" (to send across) and "mission".


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