I read mostly novels with a smattering of magazines, but I’m fortunate to get vicarious pleasure from the constant string of non-fiction that passes through The Professor’s hands. She’s currently reading I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson, an American who lived in England for over 20 years. The book is a very entertaining read, each chapter highlighting some small piece of the culture shock he experienced upon return to his native country.
On p. 156, he discusses the origin of “wassailing,” a custom that I suspect most Americans know of from the Christmas carol. I remember learning during one of the times that I sang this song in high school or college choir that the term referred both to a spiced wine, and to the act of going out and singing “wassail” to folks–i.e., caroling. But Mr. Bryson shed new light on this for me.
He learned from the 1923 T.G. Crippen book Christmas and Christmas Lore that “[i]n Anglo-Saxon times…it was customary for someone offering a drink to say ‘Wassail!’ and for the recipient to respond ‘Drinkhail!'” The word was originally a salutation, coming from the Old Norse ves heil, meaning “in good health.” (And by-the-by, “salutation” comes from a root meaning health as well.)
You can picture only a short jump to the expression becoming a toast. Think of Italian salute. In English, probably the most used toast is “cheers,” but the less common “to your health” also sounds appropriate.
“Hail” as a salutation is also related to “hale,” meaning healthy, and to “whole.” (The Oxford Dictionary of English tells me that the wh- sound was a 15th century dialectal variation.) While we equate “whole” more with “entire” now, we can still see the relationship in “wholesome,” which means healthy. “Holistic” is related, but is a 1926 intentional introduction by J.C. Smuts, who wrote the founding work of this philosophy, Holism and Evolution. Ironically and sadly, the most iconic use of this prolific root in recent times was seen in Germany in the ’30s and ’40s. How obscene is it to wish heil to one of the most abominable mass murderers ever seen?
Given short life spans and a lack of central heating in the pre-antibiotic world, one can see how wishing health on those you meet would become a common practice. I wish the same to you.