- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a New Year gift
A very Happy New Year, everyone! Ah, 2017 already. Let’s try and forget about how soul-crushingly terrible 2016 was and focus on making the year ahead a lot better. And with that in mind, here’s a pointless fact.
2017 is a prime number. The last year to be a prime number was 2011. And (in mathematical parlance at least) pairs of prime numbers that are six places apart like these are known as sexy primes. Sexy primes—which take their name from the Latin for “six”, sex, before you start imagining anything else—aren’t all that rare mathematically. In fact, by the time you count to 20, you’ll already have come across 5 and 11, 7 and 13, 11 and 17, and 13 and 19. But they’re an interesting numerical quirk all the same, and if knowing that this year is officially a “sexy prime” doesn’t start your 2017 off in the right way, frankly, what will?
That utterly pointless fact, then, is our New Year handsel to you:
The word handsel cropped up on the HH Twitter feed yesterday, defined as “a New Year gift, given to wish good luck for the year ahead”. In that specific sense, it dates back to the late fourteenth century, but handsel was in use long before then as a much more general word for a gift or presentation, or merely the act of handing something over to someone else.
It derives from two fairly straightforward roots: hand, a word that has remained all but unchanged since the Old English period, and selen, an Old English word meaning “gift” or “donation” (and which is a none-too-distant cousin of our verb sell).
Although its earliest meaning was fairly vague, it didn’t take too long for the meaning of handsel to develop. By the early thirteenth century, it was already being used to refer to omens and signs—literal “gifts” from above that signal something momentous is destined to occur. Saying that you’re doing something “for good handsel” likewise began to refer to some superstitious practice done to ensure good fortune, while something that seemed ominous or inauspicious might likewise be described as “bad” or “ill handsel”. And from there, the tradition of bestowing a gift on someone to ensure that good luck went with them—and in particular at momentous times of the year—gave us the word handsel as it is today.
Not that that’s the end of the story, of course. As handsel was passed down from century to century, it picked up a host of similar meanings referring to debuts and beginnings, and in particular those that might give you an idea of things to come. In that sense, a handsel can also be the first instalment of a payment or bond; a gift given at the start of a new job or new life stage; the first use of something newly bought or acquired; the first fruits of someone’s labour; a morning’s earnings or takings; and even the first customer or sale made by a business after opening in the morning.
And, of course, the first blogpost of the New Year.