• Maypole •
Pronunciation: may-pol • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A tall pole that stands in the center of town or that is erected annually, around which people dance on May 1st. Traditionally, the top of the pole contains flowers and draped from its pinnacle are many ribbons or flower chains. The dance involves a circle of alternating boys and girls who dance in opposite directions while holding the ribbons, braiding the ribbon down the pole. In some Germanic countries the ribbons are omitted or are painted on the pole, which is also decorated with flowers, flags, and other local symbols.
Notes: The Maypole and the Maypole dance go far back into Germanic pagan history. Both were part of the celebration of the Celtic festival Beltane at the beginning of Celtic summer, which lasted until Samhain, November 1. The dance, the pole, and the virgin selected as May Queen to walk in front of the May Day procession—all originated in pagan fertility rites that may go back to the ancient Babylonians.
In Play: The erection of the Maypole on May 1st is aptly named since many consider it a male symbol that is, in the course of the dance, covered with feminine flowers and ribbons. May Day more recently, of course, has been preempted by the socialist parties around the world as International Labor Day, and is celebrated as such in most countries.
Word History: The first of today's two Good Words is May, the name of the month. It comes from the name of the Roman goddess of spring, Maia. Simple enough: May Day celebrates the return of spring. The goddess's name is based on a root responsible for English majesty, from Latin maiestas "greatness, authority", as well as major and mayor. The root of Maia's name is probably related to English may and might. It certainly is shared by the Sanskrit word maha(t) "great" found in maharaja "great king", mahatma "great spirit" (Gandhi), and maharishi "great seer".