wassail

A word of Christmas, drinking, and song. Most who know it will immediately think of one or more lusty old English yuletide tunes enjoining all to wet their whistles. Those pronouncing it can be forgiven for stressing the second syllable, as though it were some nautical term, since one well-known song does just that, but actually it is stressed on the first syllable, with the second often reduced so much it might sound like Ensign Chekhov referring to a vassal (perhaps one of the vassals drinking to his master’s health in the same song). So what are we looking at? The w could be two cups, and the ss two wisps of steam arising from a warm beverage made with spice and ale (ail?). And when you’ve had too much, you might meet a copper who will say, “Wass all this, then,” and book you as an (w)assailant. After all, the idea was often to go from house to house singing and being rewarded with beverage, and after an evening of full-throated singing followed by full-throated drinking, one might be excessively boisterous – and perhaps a bit green about the gills… ironically, because wassail comes from wæs hæil, “be healthy,” a drinking toast.

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