Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org occasionally writes posts about the history of particularly interesting words and phrases for his Big List, and the latest is on carol. The word originally meant ‘ring dance,’ and began to be associated with Christmas as early as 1502, which mildly surprised me. But what blew my mind was this paragraph:
The early use of the word to mean a ring dance also gives us another modern word, the library carrel. The use of carol to refer to a ring or enclosure also dates to the early fourteenth century. Robert Mannyng, whose Handlyng Synne is quoted above, also used the word in his Chronicle to refer to Stonehenge. And there are numerous medieval glosses of the Latin pluteus with the word carol. In classical Latin a pluteus is a shed or enclosure, particularly one used during a siege to protect the soldiers, but in medieval Latin had also come to refer to a monk’s work cubicle.
After decades of intensive reading of dictionaries, it’s rare for me to be this surprised by an etymology.