manger: A box or trough in a stable or byre, from which horses and cattle eat. 

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)
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Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Nineteenth-century Christmas carol

The text above is often attributed to Martin Luther, but that story seems to have been invented when the first two verses of the carol were published in the The Christian Cynosure in 1882. The true author is unknown, and the slightly chilling third verse seems to have been added later. (When I was a tot, and obliged to learn these supposedly uplifting verses, I wasn’t that keen on the prospect of Jesus taking “all the dear children” to heaven—I rather wanted to stay at home with my Mum and Dad.)

The other problem I had with this carol was that I had no idea what the first line was about—no-one ever thought to explain what a “manger” or a “crib” were. But after a while I learned that a “crib” was what we in the UK call a cot*; and close inspection of Nativity scenes like the one above led me to believe that a “manger” was a sort of short, wooden trough, triangular in cross-section and comfortably stuffed with hay. But it turns out that’s not generally true—the Oxford English Dictionary notes parenthetically that the manger is “[c]hiefly used for those kinds of food which cannot be placed, like hay and straw, in the rack above.” So really the baby Jesus should be depicted nestling comfortably on a bed of slightly decaying turnips.

Well, not really. The relevant Biblical verse is Luke 2:12, which the King James edition renders into English as:

And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

The Greek word translated here as “manger” is phatne, which could mean a manger, a feeding trough or even an animal stall. The sign the angel is reporting to the shepherds is that they’ll find a conventionally dressed baby (swaddling clothes) resting in an unusual location (somewhere farm animals are fed), but not necessarily in the specific bit of farmyard kit we associate with the word manger.

Manger comes to us from French mangeoire, which means … well … “manger”, and is related to the French verb manger, “to eat”, which comes from the Latin mandare, “to chew”. In Old French, mangeue meant both “to eat” and “to itch” (maybe there is an analogy between repetitive chewing motions and repetitive scratching motions). The duty for the second meaning has been taken over by démanger in modern French, but the old word gave us English mange, an itchy skin disease suffered by furry animals. The French verb manger has leaked into culinary English just a little, in the form of blancmange, literally “white eat”, and mangetout, “eat all”—the kinds of peas you can eat along with their pods, also called snap peas and snow peas.

Latin mandare gives us the anatomical name of the jaw-bone, the mandible, and manducate, an obscure word meaning “to chew”. Manducation is the act of eating, but is applied almost solely to the Christian ceremony in which the bread of the Eucharist is eaten.

Mandare is descended from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as mendh-, which meant something like “to chew”. Despite promising first appearances, the Germanic word “mouth” actually has a different PIE root, but mendh- did give rise to Classical Greek mastax, “mouth”. Mastax gives us masticate, “to chew”, and masseter, the big chewing muscle on either side of the jaw. Maxilla is the anatomical term for the bone of the upper jaw, which came to us from the Greek via Latin. And mastic is a chewy resin obtained from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus).

Finally, we have mystax, a word from the Doric dialect of Greek, related to Classical Greek mastax. Doric was spoken is southern Italy, among other places, and mystax eventually gave rise to Italian mostaccio, and then French moustache. Which gave us, respectively, English mustachio and moustache.

I hope that’s given you something to chew on, whether or not you’re chewing on Christmas dinner.

Pistacia lentiscus

* Interestingly, though, the earliest usage of the word crib recorded by the OED has the meaning “barred receptacle for fodder”. It seems to have acquired the meaning “child’s bed with barred sides” by early association with the story of Jesus lying in a manger, which was sometimes referred to as a “crib”.

4 thoughts on “Manger”

  1. As always it is fascinating to see the origins of words. In this case it sent my mind down another byway.

    My father often referred to a light meal like sandwiches as ‘crib’. This use was fairly common here,and apparently in NZ as well. Lunch rooms are also often called the ‘crib room’. From what I can see this usage is especially common in the mining industry – and this makes sense as my father was either living in the goldfields, prospecting for gold or working in a gold mine for almost the first 50 years of his life.

    Apparently this usage was first noted among Cornish miners and of course many of them migrated to Australia/NZ during the gold rush era. There seems to be no accepted origin for the use of ‘crib’ in this fashion.

    1. Thanks for that titbit. According to the OED, a “crib” was a Cornish dialectic term for a small piece of food (“a crust of bread, a fragment of meat”) during the nineteenth century, and then they have a specific quotation from a Mining Glossary of 1881 defining it as “a miner’s luncheon”. No hints on how the word came to mean a small piece of food, however, unless it relates to an eighteenth-century usage as slang for a small child, which in turn was derived from the crib a child sleeps in.

  2. Ever so erudite . I enjoy your word derivation posts,. Got rather carried away with the pistachio info and the mastic tree. New to me. Was surprised that you made time to post this week with all the Christmas activities / events on people’s agendas.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. These posts all sit in a queue, and the website software posts them automatically at a specified date and time, which is usually noon on a Wednesday. I think “manger” has been waiting its moment for a couple of months, and is just part of my routine of posting a Christmas-related word (or three) on the nearest Wednesday to Christmas Day.

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