Besides being happy holiday words, “merry” and “bright” both have histories that I thought you might find interesting. It’s also possible, I suppose, that over-explanation could drain them of their holiday cheer, but I’m willing to take that chance.

The word merry comes to us from the Old English myrge. [That g should be a special Old English letter called a ‘yogh,’ but it’s not available on my keyboard. It’s a glottal sound like Scots say at the end of ‘loch.’] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests a connection with the Old Teutonic murgjo-, meaning “short.” The idea, presumably, is that time feels shortened when you are merry. Or, to borrow a phrase you may have heard before,  time flies when you’re having fun. 

The OED shows merry used in several combination phrases that, alas, are now obsolete, including merry-totter (meaning “see-saw”), merry-go-down(meaning “strong ale”), and merry-go-sorry (meaning “a mixture of joy and sorrow”). At least we still have merry-go-round.

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to get technical about vowels for a minute. That yin the Old English myrge would have been pronounced as an oo or u sound.. So in Middle English you’ll see spellings like murye or mury. You see that same vowel in the following words:

Modern English
Old English

Again, those words on the right were pronounced (and sometimes spelled) as if that stressed vowel were a u. But somewhere in the Middle English period, the yvowel shifted from the –u– sound to the –i– sound. So we have kiss, listen, andbridge instead of kuss, lusten, and brudge. That “y—> i” shift happened in the Midlands dialects that came to dominate English pronunciation in the Middle Ages. But in the Kentish dialect, the –y– vowel sound shifted to a short –e– sound. Those Kentish pronunciations mostly disappeared from what became standard English. But two of the pronunciations that survived were merry and bury. The spelling of merry changed to match the new vowel sound. The spelling of bury reflects the old pronunciation, even though the it now rhymes with merry.

I appreciate the OED’s overarching definition of bright: “In general, the opposite of dull.” That about covers it. There’s nothing too surprising about the development of the word’s meaning; it originally meant literally “shining, emitting rays of light,” and it picked up metaphorical meanings from there—shiny, smart, happy, sunny, charming, lively, etc. And for each of those metaphorical meanings, the opposite is “dull.” 

The Modern English word bright derives from the Old English word boerht or behrt, “shining.” This is the word in every name that includes –bert: Albert (Noble-Bright), Bertha (Bright One), Gilbert (Will-Bright or Bright-Will), Herbert (Army-Bright), Robert (Glory-Bright), etc. 

That flip from berht to bright—specifically, the flip by which the r-sound comes before the vowel rather than after—is an example of metathesis. Metathesis is the transposition of sounds within a word. (There’s a vowel shift going on here too, but for now let’s just look at the metathesis.) When a child pronounces spaghetti as pasketti, or when a person of any age pronounces cavalry as Calvary, or asterisk as asterix, you hear metathesis in action. 

While we often think of metathesis as a verbal miscue, it is also a significant linguistic force. Bird used to be brid or bridde. (There are no birds in Chaucer’s “Parliament of Foules,” only briddes.) Burn used to be brenne. (Hence the word brand, an iron for burning, or a burnt place caused by such an iron.) Metathesis explains why we have three/thirteen instead of three/threeteen.

Here’s an interesting one: the word foil comes to us by way of metathesis. The Latin word folium means “leaf.” It’s where we get the word foliage. A sheet or “leaf” of paper was known as a folio in late Latin. In English, a folio is the largest-sized book; each spread is a full folio of paper, folded over once. My beloved Oxford English Dictionary, for example, is a folio. (Smaller, more “regular” sized books are quartos and octavos, depending on whether the folio is folded into four or eight sections.)

Anyway, foil is a “leaf” of metal comparable to a “leaf” of paper. You’ve heard of “gold leaf.” Why is it foil instead of something like folio? In French, the Latin folium underwent metathesis; modern French for leaf is feuille. In Middle English, after the Norman French arrived in England, foliage was spelled foylage or foellage. The spelling and pronunciation were later “corrected” to match the Latin, so we have foliage, foliation, exfoliation, defoliation, etc. But for whatever reason, foil never got re-Latinized.

And finally, no discussion of metathesis would be complete without a mention of ask and ax. The pronunciation ax has a very long history. In Old English and Middle English, both ask and aks were in use. In The Canterbury Tales, sometimes Chaucer spells it “ask” and sometimes “axe.” In The Coverdale Bible, from 1535, Matthew 7:7 reads “Axe, and it shalbe geuen to you.” “Ask” eventually won out to be the “standard” pronunciation, but if you’re tempted to look down on someone for pronouncing it “ax,” bear in mind that this particular prejudice is relatively recent.

Thanks for indulging me. May your days be merry and bright.

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