Word of the Day: Wassail

December 16, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is a very old word, going back certainly to before the Norman invasion, and thus to before Christmas was celebrated in the British Isles. The word ‘wassail’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast, “be thou healthy (hale)”, to which the correct response was apparently “drink healthy”. Old as the word is, though, Shakespeare still manages to anachronistically plant it in the mouth of Octavius Caesar (63BC – 14AD) about a quarter of the way through Antony and Cleopatra. Speaking to Antony, and disapproving with the Roman’s Egyptian love, he pleads, “Antony, / Leave thy lascivious wassails.”

As Octavius’ comments make clear, “wassail” is often not too highly regarded. Originally, the practice of wassailing involved a trip from door to door singing carols; however, this pleasant activity could easily become less cheery when the carollers requested alms and drink or, after having received their drink, then became rowdy. This is the sense of wassail most often found in Shakespeare (is Shakespeare a grinch? Again, the question seems relevant). Take this famous passage from Hamlet as an example, where “wassail” is synonymous with unruly behaviour:

HAMLET The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

Similarly, it is with drink and “wassail” that Lady Macbeth plans to befuddle the guards around King Duncan, thus allowing her husband a chance at regicide.

Not to finish on a dismal note, I leave you with the last two occurrences of Shakespeare’s five mentions of “wassail”. Falstaff, being rather fat, compares himself to a “wassail candle” since he, like such objects, is made of “tallow”. In Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne, last seen talking about Christmas, also gives us a reference to wassail, describing Boyet as “wit’s pedlar, and retails his wares / At wakes, and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs [...]”.

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