• mistletoe •
Pronunciation: mi-sêl-to • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: A parasitic shrub with thick evergreen leaves, stems with waxy white berries, and that grows in dead or dying sections of trees.
Notes: As it grows, mistletoe accumulates the magical power to grant humans the right to kiss anyone standing beneath it. How it does that, scientists have not yet been able to determine. In England you are obliged to pluck a berry from the twig each time you take advantage of this power, thereby exhausting the twig bit by bit. In the US, we leave the berries up and indulge ourselves until there is no one left we haven't offended.
In Play: Although it began as a symbol of good luck, mistletoe today is ineluctably associated with holiday kissing: "This grapefruit makes me pucker more than a tree full of mistletoe." Unfortunately, its magical powers are non-selective, so you might hear something like this: "I would sooner eat the mistletoe than kiss him." Of course, you want to watch your language around the holidays. Avoid crude insults like, "Kiss my . . . whatever" in favor of more genteel suggestions like, "As I walk away, kindly note the mistletoe on my coattail."
Word History: This Good Word in Old English was mistiltán "mistletoe twig" from mistil, mistel "mistletoe" + tán "twig". The Old English word for mistletoe, mistel, was probably a dimuntive of mist, a word to which it seems related. It may also be related to missel of the missel thrush, a bird known to propagate mistletoe. Toe is clearly by folk etymology after the loss of tan in English—don't those little white berries look just like a baby's toes? The Celtic and Norse peoples considered mistletoe powerful magic. They hung sprigs over doors and elsewhere to stave off evil and attract good fortune. If warring parties met in the forest and noticed mistletoe growing in a tree, according to tradition, they were sorely pressed to lay down their arms (though not kiss and make up).
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