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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) someone who leaves work unfinished on Christmas Eve night

If you’re downing tools—metaphorically or otherwise—and leaving work unfinished on Christmas Eve night, then you’re a yuleshard.

That’s a word from Scots and North Country English in particular, dated by the Scots National Dictionary to the mid 1700s—but like a lot of dialect words, it was likely in use in spoken English a lot longer before anyone thought to write it down.

We might not know how old it is exactly, but we can still pick this word apart etymologically. Yule, of course, is just another word for the Christmas period (the origins of which lie in the heathen Old Norse festival of jol, which was later commandeered by Christianity). But the ‘–shard’ part is more puzzling. No, it’s nothing to do with actual shards (or any other kind of refuse material for that matter) that a disorganized worker might leave lying around their workshop if they didn’t clean up properly ahead of the Christmas break. It’s actually a corruption of the word jade, which—entirely unrelated to the precious stone of the same name—has been used as an insult or an opprobrious nickname since the sixteenth century.

Before then, in the Middle English period a jade was a worn-out horse—and still is in some contexts today. In that sense, it likely derives from another Old Norse word, yalda, literally meaning a mare. That was imported into English in the fourteenth century as yaud, before drifting towards jade—but for some reason, it was only even used of poor-quality horses in English, a negative sense not present in its original Norse.

Wherever that negative connotation came from, it stuck around, and by the 1500s jade was also being used as a mocking (and often quite light-hearted) term of abuse for a young woman. A yuleshard, ultimately, is literally a ‘yule-jade’—a sort of festive equivalent of an April fool.

The sense of ‘someone who leaves work unfinished’ seems initially to have developed among young women and their sewing:

Every girl was to finish the stocking she was knitting, the flax upon her rock, &c., in good time upon Christmas Eve, and then put everything in order, all over the house, before going to bed, otherwise she should be Yule’s yaud during the next year.
c. 1760; quoted in David Laing, The Poems of William Dunbar (1834; h/t SND)

But yuleshard has retained a more general sense too, as a mocking nickname for anyone who manages to make a fool of themselves at Christmastime. Also according to the Scottish National Dictionary, for instance, you’ll also be a yuleshard if you don’t get a new outfit to wear as a gift on Christmas Day, and have to make do with celebrating the festive period in your usual old clothes:

Every means was used to have some piece of new dress, no matter how small. The one who was so unfortunate as to be without such a piece of dress bore the name of “Yeel’s jaad.”
Walter Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland (1881)

Oh, the shame of it all...


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