• mistletoe •
Pronunciation: mi-sêl-to • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: A semiparasitic shrub of the family Viscaceae with thick evergreen leaves and waxy white berries, that grows on deciduous trees.
Notes: As it grows, mistletoe accumulates the magical power to grant anyone the right to kiss anyone else 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, however, we leave the berries up and indulge ourselves until no one is left whom we haven't labially 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 imagine mistletoe on my coattail."
Word History: This Good Word in Old English was mistiltan "mistletoe twig" from mistil, mistel "mistletoe" + tan "twig". The Old English word for mistletoe, mistel, was probably a diminutive of mist, a word to which it seems related. It may also be related to missel as in "missel thrush", a bird known to propagate mistletoe. Toe clearly arose via folk etymology after the loss of tan in English—don't those white little berries look just like a baby's toes? The Celtic and Norse peoples considered mistletoe powerful magic. They hung sprigs of it over doors 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 to kiss and make up).