We’re three days away from a holiday that English speakers call Christmas, literally ‘Christ’s mass’ or ‘Christ’s festival.’ Although biblical scholars have determined that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on that date, Spanish emphasizes his birth in its name for the holiday, Navidad. That’s a shortened form of natividad, which, like its English cognate nativity, is based on Latin natus ‘born.’ From natus came the adjective natalis ‘pertaining to birth,’ which has become our shared adjective natal. In Christianity, the Latin expression natalis (dies) ‘birth day’ came to be associated especially with the birth of Jesus. As Latin evolved in Gallia to Old French, the adjective, carrying the full weight of the phrase, evolved to the noun nael and then noel. English now uses the modern French Noël (often without the two dots that show the word is pronounced in two syllables rather than one) as a name for Christmas or the Christmas season. Also from Latin natalis came the girl’s name that exists in the versions Natalia, Natalya, and Natalie. And Noël has served in English as a male name, for example that of the playwright Noël Coward.
But back to nativity. Noah Webster defined the word this way in his dictionary of 1828: ‘birth; the coming into life or the world,’ and he went on to note that “the feast of Christmas is observed in memory of Christ’s nativity.” From Navidad—which serves in Spanish as a female name—came the adjective navideño ‘pertaining to Christmas.’ English, with its great flexibility to put a word to work as a different part of speech, uses the noun Christmas as an adjective, so regalo navideño corresponds to Christmas present. English can also go the extra step and extend Christmas by adding a suffix that is overtly adjectival; the result is Christmassy, meaning ‘typical of Christmas, appropriate for Christmas.’
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman