Dear Word Detective: Bob Dylan, on his Christmas special radio show (on XM satellite radio), said that the term “carol,” as in Christmas carol, was coined when people in London would sing Christmas songs, during their door-to-door search for a missing girl named “Carol,” so that residents would know they meant no harm. The girl was not found but the songs became known as “carols” after that. This was during the time of Jack the Ripper. Did this happen? — Greg.
I love this question. It’s got everything: a celebrity, London in the 19th century (gaslight, fog, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones…), Christmas, a serial killer on the loose, a race to save his innocent victim from dire peril, and toe-tapping music to boot! I think if we get cracking right away, we could have this ready for Broadway in time for Thanksgiving. After all, the score almost writes itself: On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four polygraphs, three latent prints, two bogus psychics, and Geraldo hiding in a pear tree. Dylan himself could do an “Our Town”-style narration, and we’d call it “The Ballad of Jack and Carol.” Awesome.
On the other hand, Mr. Dylan is a pretty smart cookie, so I think we have to entertain the possibility that he dreamed up that whole “Carol” story as a joke. But the story is out there now, so I’d better take it seriously, because I have the feeling I’ll be hearing it for the next few years. Thanks, Bob.
The bottom line is that the story of “carol” relayed by the Bobster is bogus, absolute and utter hogwash. “Carol” meaning a song or hymn sung at Christmas, has nothing to do with the personal name “Carol,” which is derived from the same Germanic root as “Charles.”
There’s a debate as to the origin of “carol” in the “song” sense, but English definitely adopted it from the Old French “carole,” and the favored theory traces it back to the Latin “choraules,” meaning “flute player who accompanies a choir or dance.” This trail leads back to the Greek “choros,” which also gave us “chorus” and “choir.” This is all very logical and fits in nicely with our modern English use of “carol” to mean a song usually sung by a group.
The original sense of that Old French “carole,” however, was “a dance in a circle accompanied by singing,” which has led to an alternate theory that the root of “carol” is actually the Latin “corolla,” meaning “little crown, garland,” carrying the sense of “ring” or “circle.” In fact, the original use of “carol” when it first appeared in English around 1300 was “a ring-dance accompanied with song.” Our modern sense of “carol” as a Christmas song didn’t appear until the early 16th century.
Whether the roots of “carol” lie in the sense of “chorus” or of “ring” may never be settled, but the citizens of London were definitely singing Christmas carols five centuries before Mr. Dylan’s improbable tale supposedly took place. My retroactive Christmas wish, speaking as a fan, is that he was joking.