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 The Diary of a Word Nerd

  • Writer's pictureGrace Kidder

Wassail: The Holiday Drink with a Surprise Meaning

If you're a big cider fan, you may already know what wassail (pronounced WAH-sul) is—a "hot drink that is made with wine, beer, or cider, spices, sugar, and usually baked apples and is traditionally served in a large bowl especially at Christmastime" (Merriam-Webster). But do you know any of its other definitions? To understand why wassail has so many different meanings, let's look a little bit at the history of the word.

Wassail comes from the Old Norse ves heill, or "be in good health." This phrase was adopted by the English in the 13th century as a customary toast to guests; in Old English, it became wæs hæil ("'Wassail', 'Yule', and More"). That version obviously looks a little closer to what we use now. Over time, wassail started being used to refer to the party at which this custom of hospitality was offered, and ultimately the drink itself that was passed around. It wasn't until the 1500s that the word was used to refer specifically to a hot drink served around Christmas.


In addition to the delicious beverage, wassail can be used as a term for "riotous drinking." It can also refer to a toast to someone's health, as we discussed above. These definitions align more closely with the word's historical roots than its present-day association with the holidays. As a verb, wassail continues to draw from its original meanings.

A "Word of the Week" graphic with the word "wassail" and its definition against a warm orange background.

The first definition M-W lists for wassail as an intransitive verb—keep your eyes peeled for a post about transitive and intransitive verbs sometime in the future—makes sense based on its noun definitions: "to indulge in wassail." (I always think it's funny when definitions use the word they're defining.) As a transitive verb, it means what is written as definition 3 in the picture.

Surprise Meaning

There is one more definition of wassail, and it's probably not what you're thinking at all. While looking up this word, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that wassail can also mean "to sing carols from house to house at Christmas." At first, this seems totally out of place with the other definitions we've seen, but it makes sense when you think about it (and know a little history about the word like we do!).

As we've established, wassail is a toast to someone's health and happiness. Most carols are about wishing people well—think "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." Knowing that, this definition actually ties in quite nicely. And now you have a fun new word you can use in place of caroling!


References: Dictionary, s.v. "wassail," accessed December 18, 2020.

"'Wassail', 'Yule', and More: The Stories Behind 8 Holiday Words." Merriam- Dictionary, s.v. accessed December 18, 2020. https://www.merriam-

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