ˈwɒs(ə)l / ˈwæs(ə)l / ˈwɒseɪl / ˈwæseɪl
wassail: a salutation spoken when presenting a cup of wine or drinking to another’s health; the wine drunk on such an occasion; the custom of drinking wine in this way on special occasions; a carousal or celebration; a song sung during such a carousal or celebration; to celebrate or to drink to someone’s health
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.
Traditional English Christmas carol
The first problem with wassail is how to pronounce it. You can say it to rhyme with “hassle”, or you can round the first vowel to make it sound like the start of “wobble”. And instead of condensing the second syllable to something like “sill”, you can say it like “sail”. All are acceptable versions.
It started life as a salutation in Old Norse, ves heill, meaning “be well”. The equivalent in Old English was wes hál, and in both languages it was something you said on meeting or departing—the equivalent of both hail and farewell. But it seems to have mutated into a specific drinking toast among the Danish settlements in England, and it is in that form it turns up in Middle English. A cup was raised or presented with the words Wæs hæil, and the toast was return by saying Drinc hæil—“drink in good health”.
From there, wassail underwent a series of transformations. The wine drunk during the toast became known as wassail, too, and it was drunk from a wassail-cup filled from a wassail-bowl. Then wassail drinking became associated with particular festivals—Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night—and wassail came to be the name of the custom of offering wassail-cups on those occasions. From there it was a short leap to calling any sort of celebratory drinking party a wassail. And finally it became associated with drinking songs, and with Christmas carols.
The first part of the word, wes in Old English, is a little piece of linguistic archaeology, reminding us that we used to have more verb forms in English than we do now. There used to be two verbs “to be” in Old English—beon and wesan. Wesan had connotations of current relevance, while beon applied to habitual states, especially if they implied a state of being that would extend into the future. They shared a common past tense (derived from wesan), but existed in separate forms in the present, subjunctive, imperative and participial. The subtle distinction in meaning between the two different verbs seems to have been patchily observed, at best, and, the various duties of “to be” were soon divvied up between the two verbs. In modern English, wesan has won the battle for the present tense—am, are and is are all little changed from their Old English wesan equivalents (as are the past tense was and were). But beon has kept the infinitive and the participles—to be, being, been.
Going back to Old English again, the verb in wes hál is the imperative singular form of wesan, used to issue a command or instruction to a single person. We don’t use imperative forms of the verb in English any more, but we do have imperative clauses that do the same job, and they use the infinitive form of the verb: “Be well!”
The second word in the phrase that gave us wassail is hál, “healthy”. And we still use hale in that sense, in the phrase “hale and hearty”. And since wes hál was originally a greeting, we also have hail, in the sense of a greeting (“hail and farewell”), which is now more commonly associated with the act of shouting to someone to attract their attention, as with a loudhailer. Another association with greeting provides hail with yet another meaning—a cry of adulation, as in “Hail, Caesar!” The German equivalent is heil, as in the notorious Nazi salute, “Seig Heil!” meaning “Hail victory!”
Hál is also the origin of health, healthy and heal. In the 15th century there was a sudden enthusiasm for adding “w” to the start of words beginning with “h”, and that gave us wholesome, “health-giving”, and whole, with an original sense of being uninjured, and therefore healthy.
Another strand of development for this word takes us back to its Teutonic roots. While heill meant “healthy” (or “lucky”) in Old Norse, heilagr meant “holy”. The same thing happened in Old High German, in which the adjective heil, meaning “healthy”, contrasted with heilag, “holy”. And in Old English we have hál, “healthy” and halig, “holy”. The link seems to have been with the idea that something holy is inviolable or perhaps indestructible—it stays healthy (if it is a person or god) or whole (if it is an object).
The association with holiness and healthiness made these roots a popular source of children’s names—we have Helga, Olga and Ole, and an old German name Heiluid (“healthy and wide”!) which is the origin of the French Héloïse , which in turns gives us Eloise, Louise, Louis and Lois.
Old English halig of course gave us holy and hallow. In addition to being a verb, “to make holy”, hallow also used to be a noun—a hallow was a holy person or saint. All-Hallows meant “all the saints” (a common dedication for a church). All Hallows’ Day was the festival of All Saints, celebrated on the first day of November, and also called Hallowmas. The day before Hallowmas was Hallow-Eve or Hallow-e’en, which is the origin of our (generally very different) celebration of Halloween.
Halidom is a combination of holy with the suffix -dom, which designates either a state of being (boredom, freedom) or a domain of some kind (kingdom, Christendom). So a halidom is in a state of being holy—it’s a holy place or holy relic. A piece of folk etymology later stepped in to produce the variant holidame— in the belief that the word referred to a “holy dame” in the form of the Virgin Mary. Although neither version crops up much in conversation these days, it was common in the 16th century to swear using references to holy objects and personages, and the oath “By my halidom” crops up several times in the plays of Shakespeare.
JULIA: Host, will you go?
HOST: By my halidom, I was fast asleep.
Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2
And finally there are plants of family Malvaceae that used to be called hocks, but which are now known as mallows. There are many varieties, including the Common Mallow, the Marsh Mallow, and the Hollyhock—the “holy mallow”.
To finish on a Christmas theme, I’d love to tell you that the name of the holly plant has the same derivation—but it doesn’t. It seems instead to have a long and obscure etymology stretching back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kel-, meaning “to cut or prick”.
So I’ll just wish you a good wassail, if you’re inclined to have one.