(n.) a parasitic plant with bright white berries
Christmas is almost upon us again, which means bouning your home, preparing your Yule-hole, and misportioning yourself silly. And brandy sauce. Lots of brandy sauce. Brandy sauce with everything. Otherwise YOU’RE JUST NOT DOING CHRISTMAS RIGHT.
But Christmas is also the season for kissing under the mistletoe—which means it’s also the season for any etymologists you might have invited round for a turkey sandwich to have a quick smoosk to themselves, and then regale you with one of the best etymological stories on offer. (And like all the best etymological stories, it involves poop.)
So. First things first. The modern English word mistletoe comes from the Old English name misteltan. Tan just means “twig” or “branch” (and lives on in teanel, a dialect word for a wicker basket), while mistel was both a shorter Old English name for mistletoe, as well as another name for birdlime, an adhesive paste made by mashing up mistletoe berries that was then smeared onto branches to catch birds.
In turn, mistel is thought to derive from one of two even earlier words: one theory claims that it’s related to masc, the Old English word for the mixture or “mash” of water and malt used to start brewing a batch of ale. But another more likely theory suggests that it’s related to the Old English word mix—it’s just that mix hasn’t always meant what it means today.
Mix or meox in Old English meant—well, excrement. Crap. Poop. Dung. Bescumberment. That’s why dunghills are sometimes called mixhills, why heaps of compost or fertiliser are called mixens, and why the water that drains from piles of muck or farm waste is called mig. The word mistel might ultimately have started life as a diminutive form of mix, in which case it probably originally meant something like “little splatter of poop”. So that mistletoe you’ll be kissing under this Christmas? Yep—that’s literally a “poop-twig”. But how on Earth did that happen?
Well, if you’re horticulturally minded, you might know that the mistletoe plant is essentially a parasite: it doesn’t have true roots of its own, but rather attaches itself to a tree or a plant that’s already growing, forces itself through the bark or the stem, and thereby leeches all the nutrients it needs directly from it. And because it doesn’t rely on a system of roots pushed deep underground, mistletoe can often be found growing high up in the tops of trees, nowhere near the soil—and there’s really only one way that it can get up there.
Ironically, as well as being used to make birdlime, mistletoe berries are something of a delicacy for thrushes and other similar-sized birds. The seeds the berries contain, however, aren’t quite as digestible as the fleshy pulp around them, so when the birds poop them out—often while perched in the very tops of the trees—they’re not only deposited perfectly unscathed, but coated in their own personalized layer of guano.
Or, to put it in the considerably more eloquent terms of the Tudor English herbalist William Turner:
[The thrush] shiteth out the miscel berries well prepared in her bodye and layeth them upon the tre[e.] The berries grow into a bushe and the bushe bringeth furth berries, and of the berries the fouler maketh byrde lyme.
And on that note, Happy Christmas to all!