Nowel, Noel, Nowell!

December 21, 2013

It’s Advent, and because New York Polyphony sings a lot in December, we encounter the word noel a great deal.

If you’re like me, you’ve not thought much about the word noel and what it means.  My first time encountering the word was as a small child when I learned the popular Christmas carol “The First Nowell”. When you’re learning language as a youngster, you often overlook words you don’t understand and infer the meaning by context.  Some words never really gain definitions; they just inhabit a lexically vague area of the brain associated with other words from context. For me, Nowell was one of them.

I distinctly remember the second time I encountered the word noel (variant spelling). A girl in my first grade class was named Noel. I remember thinking that her name was hilarious! (What can I say? I was a kid!) For a while, all I could think of when singing a Christmas carol with the word Nowell in it was Noel’s face. I can still picture her today.

So, what does this word that many of us have sung hundreds of times mean?

Here’s the answer: it comes from the Latin word nasci – to be born. This converts to the noun natalis, which, in Christianity obviously refers to the birth of Jesus.  As Romance languages spread alongside Christianity in Europe, the word nael (from the Latin natalis) made its way into old French. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, nowel appears in Ond English. In French, Noël came to mean Christmas. Today, noel is defined by Mirriam-Webster in the modern English language as both 1.) a Christmas carol, and (when capitalized) 2.) Christmas. You can imagine that a song like “Nowel: Arise and Wake” was originally intended as an announcement of the song form “Christmas Carol” and then the title, “Arise and Wake”. By the way, we sing two versions of this song. One is a Medieval setting from the Ritson Manuscript, and the brand-new setting by Andrew Smith which we premiered this month for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

So, Happy Holidays everyone, or “Merry/Happy Christmas” if that better suits you.  May your season be bright, may you find yourself under a lot of mistletoe, and may your noel singing be melodious and perfectly in tune!  (And apologies to Noel for my first-grade sense of humor.)