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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Why is there a toe in mistletoe?

Are you hoping to smooch with someone under "A yellowish-green, dichotomously branched, hemiparasitic Eurasian shrub, Viscum album" (as the OED so unromantically defines it) this Christmas?

Back in Old English, this plant with reputed magical properties was called mistiltan. Tān was the Old English word for "twig". But coincidentally tān was also the plural of (toe). This led to a very early confusion of the two words, especially as tān lost the battle to "twig" and died out of the language. 

As for the possible etymology of the "mistle" part, it may make you less inclined to hang out under a sprig of this plant. The OED tells us this:
etymology uncertain: perhaps < the Germanic base of mix (the now obsolete Old English word for "dung"), from the fact that the plant is propagated in the excrement of birds
You will have noticed that the botanical name for mistletoe is Viscum album (album meaning "white").  Being smart word lovers, you will have instantly recognized the source of our word "viscous". Viscum was what the Romans called not only mistletoe, but the slimy, sticky substance made from its berries that was spread on tree branches to catch birds.

Having now filled your brain with associations like "excrement" and "slime" for this innocent word, may I express my wish for you that any relationship that starts (or continues) for you under the mistletoe this Christmas is one that... sticks.

I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! More info here:

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps that's why Walter de la Mare was kissed by a ghost under the mistletoe -- someone who couldn't let go.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.