This arises from the question by @brianpck about the meaning of ‘noe’ in the context of Christmas, which he ended with a speculation about noel/nowell being shortened from the Hebrew emmanuel (God is with us) — which I had heard before and am inclined to favour.

I am well aware that dictionaries give an etymology based on nascor, nasci, (g)natus and/or the adjectives natalis or natalicius Even allowing for a variant nael postulated by Etymonline I don't find this convincing, especially as the dictionaries that I have looked at all seem (lazily?) to use very nearly the same form of words. I wonder if someone is able to explain just how such an origin can be supported: I can’t for the life of me see how some part of nascor, etc, could turn into words for Christmas that have only the letter 'n' in common. I confess to much ignorance about vowel shifts and so on, but this seems to be stretching things a bit too far.

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    It's funny, a friend asked me the same thing about how natalis could possible change to noel. I muttered something about how maybe there's a rule that let's a dental disappear between two vowels, but I've never studied linguistics formally, so it was just speculation.
    – brianpck
    Nov 12, 2016 at 15:03
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    etymonline and other on-line English dictionaries are all copied (or rather pasted) from other dictionaries. The CNRTL by contrast is a serious academic source. Please note that Old French nael is not "postulated" but attested (see the first quotation in the CNRTL entry).
    – fdb
    Nov 12, 2016 at 15:50

2 Answers 2


From the etymology of Noel (Ortolang):

Étymol. et Hist. A. Subst. masc. 1. début xiies. «fête de la nativité de Jésus-Christ» al Naël Deu (Saint Brendan, 620, éd. E. G. R. Waters); 1119 Noel (Philippe de Thaon, Comput, 53, éd. E. Mall); 1694 busche de Noel «grosse bûche que l'on mettait dans l'âtre pour toute la nuit de Noël» (Ac.); 1845 arbre de Noël (Besch.); 1855 père Noël (Sand., loc. cit.); 1949 croire au père Noël (Sartre, loc. cit.); 2. 1178 «époque où l'on célèbre Noël» (Roman de Renart, Br. XII, 13311, éd. M. Roques: Ce fu un pou devant Noel Que l'on metoit bacons en sel); 1611 à Noel au perron, à Pâques au tison (Cotgr.); 3. ca 1300 «cri de réjouissance que poussait le peuple» (Guillaume de La Villeneuve, Les Crieries du peuple, 109 ds Fabliaux et Contes, éd. E. Barbazan, II, 282); 4. 1548 «cantique chanté à l'occasion des fêtes de Noël» (Rabelais, Ancien Prologue du Quart Livre, éd. R.Marichal, p.287). B. Subst. fém. 1813 (J.-F. Rolland, Dict. mauv. lang., p.93). Du lat. natalis adj. «de naissance, relatif à la naissance», natalis dies et par substantivation natalis «jour de naissance» utilisé en lat. eccl. pour désigner la Nativité du Christ. L'o de noël (en face de l'a. fr. nael, ital. natale, a. prov. nadal) est dû à une dissimilation des 2 a de natalis.

(The bold-facing is mine).

In brief: the loss of /t/ between two vowels is normal in French (as in pater > père). Latin natalis > Old French naël. The alternative form noël implies natalis > *notalis, with dissimilation of a-a to o-a.

  • Thank you. That seems to settle it. However, I think there may be another origin for Nowell in the English carol, which is possibly 14th C — but we'll let it pass!
    – Tom Cotton
    Nov 12, 2016 at 19:49
  • The alternative form noël implies natalis > *notalis: more likely the dissimilation followed the consonant loss, given the attested form nael.
    – TKR
    Nov 12, 2016 at 22:28
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    @TKR. That is the part I am not sure about. You cannot very well argue that nael > noel is the result of dissimilation. It is more likely that natalis > naël and natalis > *notalis > noël are two different dialect forms, of which the latter prevailed.
    – fdb
    Nov 13, 2016 at 0:45
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    @TKR. Because the vowels in naël are not similar.
    – fdb
    Nov 14, 2016 at 19:48
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    Dissimilation just means segments become less similar -- they don't have to start out identical.
    – TKR
    Nov 14, 2016 at 19:49

I just came across this fantastic song/video explaining the etymology of noël (and nowell along the way) from Latin natalis. He covers loss of final syllables, dissimulation, and vocalic changes (distinctive to French).

As the chorus goes,

Noël, noël, noël, noël

was Latin for birthday

but now you can't tell

It is very, very clever and well worth two and half minutes of your time!

  • Thank you, that is brilliant! (his Biblical Philologist to the tune of 'Modern Major General' by G&S is also worth a listen).
    – Tom Cotton
    Aug 17, 2018 at 8:59
  • @TomCotton It was the Biblical Philologist that first introduced me to him! It's a masterpiece!
    – Penelope
    Aug 17, 2018 at 9:23

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