Dave Wilton of 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.


  1. Trond Engen says

    Never mind ‘carol’ with such a beautiful specimen of ‘eke’:

    Faire is carole of maide gent,
    Bothe in halle, and eke in tent.

    (Fair is the carol of the noble maid,
    Both in the hall, and also in the tent.)

  2. Trond Engen says

    But, yeah, the ringdance was a surprising turn. I think I’ve simply assumed it to be a folk version of choral.

  3. The OED2 (1933) agrees that the word carrell in the sense (now said to be Obs. exc. Hist.) of a cubicle in a cloister is a respelling of carol, but does not go so far as to extend this to the modern use of the word for a library cubicle (first dated 1919); there is no etymology given for the word as a whole. Hopefully the OED3 will update this story.

  4. There may be a connection with χορός, although an indirect one:

  5. I’ve only run into carrel years ago, when the university library near here still had the practice of letting graduate students reserve semi-enclosed desks and park their books there. Some of them, when I passed them by, would have mini-libraries of dozens of volumes shelved in them, which looked to me like over-the-top luxury.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Never mind choral, what about corral? 🙂

  7. I wonder if the OED correctly conflates carol ‘ring dance’ with carol ‘cubicle, bay’ (> carrel). If I were to venture a guess, I’d associate the latter with French carreau < LLat. quadrellus ‘small square’).

  8. Can you correctly conflate things? I suppose you can, but for me conflate has a strong connotation of error.

  9. Never mind choral, what about corral?

    See the last paragraph in the link.

  10. Keith: The various dictionary definitions don’t say so, but their examples generally suggest it, perhaps by conflation with confuse.

  11. Can you correctly conflate things?

    I think so, but in case I’m wrong, let me put it differently: I suspect the OED incorrectly conflates… (etc.).

  12. Trond Engen says

    The meaning “ring dance” could be squared with quedrellus too.

  13. @David: Also kraal, an Afrikaans loanword referring to an animal enclosure or stockaded village, coming from Portuguese curral.

    I’m unsure, though, about the claim that carrel words and corral words come from the same PIE root. Etymonline derives the former from Latin corolla, a diminutive of corōna, from Greek korṓnē, which appears to come from PIE *sker-. The latter it says is “perhaps ultimately African”, or alternatively from VL currāle, from currus, from PIE *ḱers-.

  14. BBC Radio 4 Extra is rebroadcasting a history of the Christmas carol, starting in the Middle Ages with ringdances.

    A Cause for Caroling
    Choral conductor and scholar Jeremy Summerly traces the origins and traditions of the Christmas carol in Britain

    Available to listen online.

  15. Geographic data processing uses “conflation” in a sense where you can do it correctly.

    Conflation is fusing features from different data sets that adjoin or overlap in area. Maps for neighboring countries may not quite agree about a road as it crosses the border, so you conflate those features into one, and fudge everything together. Or you have a city map to knit in to a country map.

    Incorrect GIS conflation can be conflation, or can be the opposite — resulting in features overprinted or cracked by a fault line.

  16. It’s an ill wind that blows nothing together.

  17. Oboe, n. An ill wind that nobody blows good.

  18. I think this business with conflate is part of something general that I would call “extremal implicature”, whereby a scalar term tends to be used at one end of its scale unless otherwise qualified: luck is good luck, a medical temperature is a high temperature, attitude is a hostile attitude, and by the same token most conflation is erroneous conflation. But it ain’t necessarily so, it’s only an implicature.

  19. I think phlasmos is a sadly underused term. (Encountered when looking up flō in Lewis and Short).

  20. We do hear from time to time of flatus vocis; my Latin teacher was fond of the expression.

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