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12 Words of Christmas - Compass Classroom Blog

12 Words of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Partridge: a short-tailed, fat, brown game bird.

This word comes to us from ancient Greek πέρδιξ (pérdix), which became perdix in Latin, turned into perdriz in Old French, and then partrich in middle English. And they all mean, wait for it… partridge.

I have no idea why the bird ended up in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…


Turtle Doves: small doves with a soft purring call, well know for its apparent affection for its mate.

So, we are all wondering…. what does that have to do with a turtle? As it turns out, it has nothing to do with a turtle. The turtle prefix actually comes from the Latin word turtur, which is, according to the ancients, the soft purring sound the dove made.  

Naturally, English later turned “turtur” into turtle.

On the third day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

French Hens: A hen is a female bird.

The word “hen” comes from the Old English word “henn”. Believe it or not, “henn” means, hen. Yep. I am not kidding.

The Latin word for hen is “Gallina”. I am sure you already know this, but from the Latin Gallina, English derives the following words:

Gallinaceous: domestic fowl.
Gallinivorous: an adjective describing someone who eats domesticated fowl. A chicken-eater.
Gallinicide: the killing of chickens.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Calling Birds: The term 'calling birds' in the song is a deviation from the original term ‘colly’ bird. 'Colly' means 'black' and came from an old word for coal. The four colly birds are actually blackbirds.

Why would you want to give blackbirds to your true love? No idea.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Gold Rings: Finally a gift that makes sense.

The word comes from the Old English word for gold, which is… gold. The Latin word for gold is aurum. This is why the symbol on the periodic table for gold is AU.

On the sixth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Geese a-Laying: A goose is a large waterfowl.

The word goose comes from the Old English word gos. The Latin word for goose is “anser”. I did not think there were English words from anser, but I was wrong.

A merganser is a large duck that likes to hang out in northern lakes.

On the seventh day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Swans a-Swimming: Swan is an old English word meaning, singer.

In this sense, a swan is a singing bird. Perhaps seven swans a-singing is more appropriate

The Latin word for swan is cygnus, which is just a beautiful word, isn’t it? There is a constellation up there somewhere named Cygnus.

On the eighth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Maids a-Milking: a maid is a young unmarried woman.

Maid is a shortened version of the word maiden. In Old English, a maid was mægden. Sounds a lot like the modern German word for girl, which is Mädchen. The Latin word for maid is virgo.

The state of Virginia ultimately derives its name from this word.

On the ninth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Ladies Dancing: The word lady comes from the Old English hlæfdige.

The word means “one who kneads bread," from hlaf "bread" and mægden. Put your hands down. I didn’t make up the definition. Blame the Saxons.

The Latin word for lady is either femina, or domina. You have a choice. English derives many words from femina, and Italian pulls a lot of words out of domina. Donna, for example.

On the tenth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Lords a-Leaping: The word lord comes from the Old English hlafweard, “the one who guards the loaves," from hlaf "bread, loaf" and weard "keeper, guardian”.

The Latin word for lord, or master is dominus. From dominus, the Spanish derived their word for master, el dueno. From el dueno comes my name: Dwane.

That’s right. You can call me “Master Thomas” from now on.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Pipers Piping: The word piper comes from the Latin word pipa, which means, a pipe.

A pipa could also be a tube-shaped musical instrument. The word pipa comes from the Latin verb pipare, to chirp.

Pipes were associated with the word since pipes could be used to create a “chirping” sound, or music.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Word Up! gave to me…

Drummers Drumming: The word drum comes from the Dutch tromme.

The Latin word for drum is typanum. It may be from typanum that English derives tamborine, a type of small drum.

Learn more fascinating word histories in Word Up! The Vocab Show