Noel, genes and genius

When singing the Christmas carol The First Noel the other day I started wondering where the word noel comes from. I knew noël was French for Christmas, but wasn’t sure where that came from.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, noel comes from the Latin natalis (birth) via the Old French noel (the Christmas season), and the Middle English nowel.

Quite a few other words for Christmas probably come from the same root – Natale (Italian), Navidad (Spanish), Natal (Portuguese), Nadal (Catalan/Galician/Occitan/Romansh), Nadolig (Welsh), Nedeleg (Breton), Nadelik (Cornish), Nollaig (Irish/Scottish Gaelic), and Nollick (Manx).

natalis comes from natus, the past participle of nasci (to be born), which comes from the Old Latin gnasci (to be born), which is cognate with the Latin genus (race, stock, kind), and the Greek γένος [genos] (race, kind) and γόνος [gonos] (birth, offspring, stock), the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root of which is *gen-/*gon-/*gn- (to produce, beget, be born).

Other words derived from that PIE root include genius, gene, king and kin in English, gentis (Lithuanian – kinsman), Kind (German – child), geni (Welsh – to be born), and I’m sure there are plenty of others.

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, German, Greek, Language, Latin, Welsh, Words and phrases.

5 Responses to Noel, genes and genius

  1. Petréa Mitchell says:

    In Sanskrit it becomes jan- “birth”, and I can’t help suspecting, though I don’t know for sure, that it has something to do with jananī “mother”.

  2. Christopher Miller says:

    I was thinking of the Hindi/Sanskrit name Sujat and how it quite likely is a direct cognate with Eugene (from Greek heu+gen- ‘well’ + ‘born’: the Sanskrit su- is cognate to heu- and jat, I’m pretty sure, is likely a participle form derived from jan-. I had an Iranian roommate with the Persian name, which he explained had the same meaning Behzâd: beh- = ‘good/well’, and I’m guessing zâd = jat = gen-…

    Anyone with more knowledge of these languages than I have who can expand on this?

    And coming to think of gen-, just this morning on CBC radio’s The Current, there was a piece about the Waldseemüller map of 1507 (the year after Columbus’ dearth) which for the first time identified the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean as a continent between Europe and the Indies, contrary to the understanding at the time that the islands reached by Columbus and subsequent explorers were outliers of the Indies (where the Spice Islands are located), beyond which the east coast of Asia couldn’t be far. In that map, the name America was used for the first time to identify what for the first time was hypothesised to be a huge north-south land mass blocking direct access to the Indies, with yet more ocean to be traversed on its western side. This map added to the “three parts” of the world (Europa, Asia, Africa) a fourth with the new name America.

    The name was coined by Matthias Ringmann, a cosmographer collaborating with the cartographer Waldseemüller in a Gymnasium in Saint-Dié in Lorraine, not far from Strassburg/Strasbourg. An alternative name he proposed was Amerigen, fusing Amerigo with gen, a Greek accusative form meaning ‘land’ (cf. geo-). Here, apparently, he was making a bunch of complex multilingual plays on words, since of course gen- can mean ‘born’, and ameros can mean ‘new’, but also meros can be translated as place, making A-meri-gen equivalent to ‘Nowhereland’ or Utopia without the eu- meaning that Sir Thomas More punningly confused with ou- (non-) in coining that last name. Which kind of brings me full circle to Eugene and its cognates…

    A couple of very interesting reads online about the naming of America:

    1. About the Waldseemüller map:

    2. An in-depth article about the origin of the name America and the early opposition to the name in Spain:

  3. Petréa Mitchell says:

    A couple more I’ve remembered: jñana “knowledge” and various words starting jana- where it means the populace in general or inhabitants of a particular area.

    Something of the later apparently survived into Hindi; see the name of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, Bharat = India).

  4. Kevin says:

    The -g/-k endings of the terms for “Christmas” in the Brythonic/Goidelic languages are due to the fact that these words derive from the Latin “(festa) natalicia”.

  5. Shaday Agovaz says:

    You know, I would also like to know how “Noel” came also to mean a kind of San ta Claus, because in Hispanic culture there is a “Papa Noel” (Father Noel). Maybe it would be something like “Father Christmas”.

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