Christmas Words (1): Merry

Throughout December 2022, we’ll be writing a series of posts about words related to Christmas.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious: Merry!

If you go to an English speaking country in late December, you’re certain to hear the word Merry a lot, as people wish each other Merry Christmas and usually a Happy New Year.

But what does it mean?

According to Merriam Webster, the word came from the German murg, meaning brief (short). But since mery arrived in English in the 12th century, the word has taken on several new meanings: quick, attractive, or joyful.

The last of these meanings is the most common one nowadays.

So it’s the same as happy?

No, not quite. You could have a happy time sitting quietly in the park, watching ducks splashing in the water (for example). But it wouldn’t be merry.

Being merry involves fun, possibly uninhibited fun with music or dancing or overeating.

You can also use merry to mean drunk, as in the kind of thing workers might say the morning after the company Christmas dinner:

  • I don’t think the boss will be coming in today. (S)he got a bit merry yesterday at the Christmas dinner”.

The noun form is merriment.

Then why do we say Merry Christmas but not Merry Birthday?

Dunno! Well, it’s English, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be logical.

But actually, maybe it’s logical enough. Christmas is the biggest holiday in most English-speaking countries, so it gets its own special word.

We say:

  • Merry Christmas
  • Happy New Year
  • Happy Birthday
  • Happy Anniversary (for someone who’s been married 30 years etc.)
  • Happy Holidays (an American alternative to Merry Christmas, recognising that there are other religious holidays in December)
  • Have a nice holiday/ trip/ weekend
  • Enjoy your meal

You can describe a birthday party or holiday or weekend as merry. And New Year’s Eve (31st December) gets very merry indeed in some cities.

  • We had a fun time at your party last night. Thank you for inviting us.
  • We had a merry time at your party last night. Thank you for inviting us.

The second option here would be fine, although not that common.

Someone wished me a Happy Christmas. Were they wrong?

Nah! That’s fine too.

Okay! Now I’m ready for some more advanced vocabulary using this word.

Righto! Here goes…

1. A merry-go-round

This thing:

Photo by Andrey Mironov on

Also apparently referred to as a carousel, but why would you want to?

2. A merry band

Maybe you’ve heard of Robin Hood and his Merry Men? This is the type of band we’re talking about here: a band of outlaws, causing trouble wherever they go.

A merry gang of pirates can cause no end of trouble on the High Seas

This one can be used sarcastically:

  • Great! Another 4 years of [name of politician] and his merry band of Marxists/ fascists!

3. On my/ your/ their merry way

Another sarcastic one. Merry has no meaning here – it just emphasises the fact that the journey, whatever it was, remains unfinished.

  • We tried one hotel after another, but they were all full so we continued on our merry way.
  • The letter said I had to go to the clinic, but when I got there they said go to the main hospital in town. Then the hospital said they couldn’t do anything without a letter from my doctor, so instead of seeing me they just sent me on my merry way.

4. Play merry hell

To cause chaos! Yep, the sarcasm is getting progressively bleaker…

  • I can’t eat onions – they play merry hell with my stomach.

5. Eat, drink and be merry!

This can be used without sarcasm (phew), as an instruction to guests at a party.

Photo by Askar Abayev on
  • Thanks for coming, everyone! Do get started… eat, drink and be merry!

The original phrase comes from two Bible verses, which are commonly mixed (as well as being quoted out of context):

  • Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry… (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
  • And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die. (Isaiah 22:13)

Oh. Things took a bleak turn again.

Evidently, for English speakers, merriment is a dangerous thing…

Merry Christmas! – if you dare.

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