Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.
There are some things that seem to happen only at Christmas. For instance, there’s someone who wanders around all over the place and does something on your roof.
Well, OK, that’s more in the league of things that are spoken of (or sung of) as happening at Christmas. It’s the time of year when we sing about how up on the rooftop reindeer pause and out jumps good old Santa Claus. And also about decking the halls with boughs of holly.
Ah, yes, that song—it has three great Christmas-only verbs in its first verse:
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la.
’Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la . . . et cetera.
Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, la la la, hmm. . . .
Troll the ancient yuletide carol, fa la la. . . . Say, what do you mean by troll?
OK, to be fair, don isn’t something we do on Christmas only—or even refer to it only at Christmas. But it does have that seasonal reference. And it is something we do on. . .
No, that wasn’t a tease. That was the end of the sentence. Don, you see, is just a condensed form of do on. Just as you can do up your laces, you used to be able to speak of doing on your clothes. Doing what? No, no, not do something on them, just do on. And when you remove them, you do off. Which is to say, doff. A series of vestings and divestings would be don and doff, and don and doff, and don and doff, and on and on.
And how about deck, then? Here, in Canada, you usually don’t go out on the deck at Christmas; it’s too cold. But this isn’t that deck at all; it’s the deck at hall. It’s a fancy-plain word for putting up the festive appurtenances. If you say deck in oration, at home you speak of decoration.
But deck is not short for decorate. Nope, it’s a good old Germanic verb related to some good old Germanic nouns, notably our English noun thatch and the German noun Dach, which means “roof.” They’re all about covering, and our verb deck means “cover”—these days with decor, but in older times with clothes (so you can deck yourself by donning your apparel—mind you, these days if you deck someone, it’s a whole other thing; though, we can still be jewel-bedecked and so on). You can deck your deck, but it will get snow-bedecked; better to stick to the walls of your halls (whether they be hallways or dining halls). Make sure you don your apparel first, or you might seem not to be playing fully decked.
And, speaking of playing, there’s the music. Troll the ancient yuletide carol? Do we speak of this because it’s the end of the verse and right before the bridge? No, different troll, and unrelated. This one is a word that we got from French (though we’re not sure where French got it), and it means “wander around; ramble, saunter, stroll” (there’s no evidence that troll and stroll have a common origin, but neither has a very well-known history, so we can’t say it’s not so, just that there’s nothing to say it is so; stroll appears to come from German).
That doesn’t mean we wander around singing the carol, though. It also doesn’t mean we sing it deliberately badly, just to provoke people; though, that would be a current sense of troll, too. The ambulatory sense of troll was extended to a sense of passing something around from one person to another (so you could troll the wassail bowl, for instance), and that, in turn, was extended to a sense of singing a round, or, for that matter, just singing merrily and joyfully and gaily.
So there it is: don is from do on; deck is from a covering like a roof; troll is from wandering about. So if you’re putting up your huge Christmas light display on your house, and a neighbour or spouse shouts up, “What are you doing on the roof, wandering around?”, you can reply with the first verse of Deck the Halls. And, after you finish, you will receive the audience’s appreciation: here comes scant applause.