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The Terms of Christmas, Present

My wife and I were out Christmas shopping last week and came home with an armload of classic holiday DVDs that we somehow didn't already own. She'd gathered up every title you probably know, and we spent a couple of evenings watching our way through the pile. During this latter-day review of the holiday favorites of our childhood, it struck me that there were a surprising number of terms and phrases that had become familiar either directly from these Christmas classics or from their sources.

Is there anyone who doesn't love the works of Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss? Dr. Seuss gave us many characters — The Cat in the Hat (and his minions, Thing One and Thing Two), the Lorax, and the inhabitants of Whoville (and their dinner centerpiece, roast beast). Many of us probably owe him for teaching us to read. But all of us owe him for the term grinch and its siblings grinchy and grinched. This term was invented for that classic tale of party-pooping, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, published in 1957 and put on film with masterful animation by Chuck Jones in 1966.

A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965 included many of the catchwords that the strip had been famous for, like Good grief!, Frieda's I have naturally curly hair, you know, and Lucy van Pelt's psychiatric help for 5 cents (all set to a score by Vince Guaraldi that has taken on a life of its own [video]). Most people of a certain age will recognize these phrases as an integral part of that comic. Although Charles Schultz didn't invent the term security blanket, which makes several appearances in the film, the OED explicitly credits him with popularizing it. And the Christmas special introduced us to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, which these days can refer to any spindly little thing sitting sadly on the lot, and a version of which you can order for your home:

One of many Charlie Brown Christmas trees that you can buy. [Source]

The 1964 interpretation of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a stop-motion animated feature narrated by an animated Burl Ives, did a clever job of incorporating the song lyrics into the dialog. The song itself is a relative newcomer to the Christmas canon, having started as a poem distributed as advertisement by Montgomery Ward in 1939, and later set to music by Johnny Marks. Aside from having created a durable character in popular culture, the poem (or song) gave us the phrase reindeer games, which became the title of a heist movie, and which flirts with lexicographic respectability as "fun activities which are enjoyed only by members of a clique" (via the dubious Urban Dictionary). Many people will certainly know exactly what you mean by you could even say it glows. (As an aside, the writer Vivian Walsh turned the phrase all of the other reindeer into her own book series about Olive, the Other Reindeer.)

It's a Wonderful Life gave us every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. Miracle on 34th Street gave us I believe ... I believe .... A Christmas Story, a compendium of pieces by the Indiana writer Jean Shepherd, gave us Ralphie's Christmas quest for the (real life) Red Ryder BB Gun, and many a one-time viewer will reflexively advise You'll put shoot your eye out! anytime the subject of BB guns comes up. The film Holiday Inn gave us a hotel chain of that name and made famous the song "White Christmas," which certainly fixed in our minds the idea of a snowy season to dream of.

The granddaddy of all Christmas-related contributions to English has got to be Charles Dickens's classic "A Christmas Carol." Most obviously, Dickens contributed the eponym scrooge to our vocabulary, as well as the crotchety interjection bah, humbug! Probably to the annoyance of many copy editors (like John McIntyre), the ghost of Christmas past is regularly rolled out in headlines for seasonally themed stories, including in The Economist, Forbes, and Fox News to name a few recent examples. It seems likely that the character of Tiny Tim inspired that name in others, including the unusual pop singer Tiny Tim from the 1960s (real name: Herbert Khaury) and the anti-shipping missile developed during World War II. And Tiny Tim's iconic wish — "God bless us, every one!" — also shows up sprinkled in headlines (Jezebel, Scriptorium, United Church of Christ website) as well as incorporated into song lyrics by Andrea Bocelli and by the "nu metal" rock band Linkin Park (in both cases questionably spelled as "God bless us everyone").

For our little tour, we pondered only the terms that we culled while watching our collection of TV specials. If we took a broad look at the entirety of Christmas songs and stories (including of course Biblical), we would find many more phrases that have leaked into English: three wise men, star in the east, silent night ... well, the list goes on and on. I'm sure that we could spend all season looking out for Christmas-related terms in everyday speech. And perhaps I will!

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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 14th 2011, 4:58 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I was glad you were able to give passing credit to the Biblical themes upon which the entire notion of Christmas is based in the first place.
The subject of "political correctness" is a mean one in modern Western society, and the mere reticence to mention the name of Christ, in contradistinction to other great historical religious leaders, is enough to bear mention.
Isn't the theme of CHRISTmas that of hope, faith, forgiveness, personal salvation, and the greatest of these, love?
This is what Christmas means to a large percentage of the world's people.
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Tracy K. (Wymondham United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
It strikes me again how much a phrase, character, or idea catches on when it's part of a compelling story. We're so conscious of culture having changed as movies become our main collective experience; we rarely spot that the changes that come are from the appeal to this narrative experience we share. As writers it's useful to reflect on this if we're planning work intended to change people - hide it in a story they will come back to again and again.

(apologies for any errors, I'm on my Android:-))
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
And I was on my iPad!
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Tracy K. (Wymondham United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
You have more confidence in your ability to type on the ipad then! It's a tiny bit less fiddly! I didn't want to throw my reputation early on, due to sloppy tapping! :-)
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Hey, it's "you'll shoot your eye out" or, as that delightful Santa says "you'll shoot your eye out, kid."

Merry Christmas from southern California where "the sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. . ."

Rahla, La Canada Flintridge, CA
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Hey, it's "you'll shoot your eye out" or, as that delightful Santa says "you'll shoot your eye out, kid."

Merry Christmas from southern California where "the sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. . ."

Rahla, La Canada Flintridge, CA
Wednesday December 14th 2011, 11:49 PM
Comment by: John M. (Baltimore, MD)

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Halt, wHo gOEs tHErE?
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