merry, God rest you merry

It wasn’t even yet 7 am on New Year’s Day when I debunked my first word myth of the year. A friend sent me a newspaper article in which a university professor claims that the merry in the title of the Christmas carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen actually meant mighty or strong. “The word ‘merry’ means strong or mighty, as in ‘merry old England,’ and the word ‘rest’ means to keep or make. So the title translates to ‘God keep you mighty, gentlemen,’ and refers to the lamplighters and additional men hired to patrol during the holidays,” said the professor, who will remain nameless here out of my desire not to embarrass him for his slipshod research techniques.

The first stop for any inquiry into the English language should always be the OED. And had the professor done that, he would have discovered that God rest you merry is a catchphrase meaning may “God grant you peace and happiness,” and it dates to at least 1534. Besides the Christmas carol, its second most famous appearance is in Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (And one need not go to the OED. Wikipedia gets it right and even debunks the false meaning of merry.)

Where the idea that merry means strong or mighty comes from is a mystery, but as the Wikipedia entry testifies the mistaken idea has some currency. Merry has never been used to mean such. The modern word is from the Old English mirige, which meant pleasant, joyful, or sweet. No dictionary that I know of records merry as having a definition of strong or mighty at any time from the Old English period right up through the present.


“merry, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2001.

“miri(e (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2013.

“mirige, adj.,” Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898.

“rest, v.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2010.

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