192: Special holiday words

Mistletoe, tree farms, Scrooges, and more...


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy and this is our 192nd episode.

It's that time of year when things seem to be hectic. No matter what your religion or culture is, it's a busy, busy time! The holidays can also be hard because they come with their own special vocabulary that many non-native speakers don't really get to in interact with enough to learn very well. So in this and the next episode, I'm going to try to fix that.

The schedule is a little messed up because I'm a few days behind on posting this episode and then I intend to post the next episode early so you can hear it before Christmas. After New Year's, I'll be back on schedule.

Today I'm going to go over some common holiday vocabulary that can be difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce. Then, next week I'm going to play an audio recording of Twas the Night Before Christmas, which was originally known as A Visit from St. Nicholas. I'll also be giving you some tips for finding your own free audio recordings to help you with pronunciation.

Getting back to vocabulary, we've obviously got the words Merry Christmas. I did a whole podcast about this (oh) a year or two ago that I'll link to from this episode's transcript page so it's easier to find if you want to learn more. The words merry (m-e-r-r-y), marry (m-a-r-r-y), and the name Mary (m-a-r-y) are all pronounced the same in most of the United States. Use the air sound (air sound) and you'll be fine. Then, don't try to add a t sound into Christmas. It's not there. The two syllables are Christ-mas. Repeat after me: Merry Christmas.

Speaking of a silent t, there's also one in the word mistletoe, spelled m-i-s-t-l-e-t-o-e. If you haven't ever heard of mistletoe before, be careful. It's a little green plant that people hang from the ceiling. If you stand under it, anyone can come up to you and give you a kiss! If you want to see it, there was recently a picture of it on our Facebook page. The word again was mistletoe. Repeat it after me: mistletoe.

Of course, Santa Clause has become a big part of Christmas, so we should talk about how to say his name. In the name Santa, we've got a letter t that follows an n sound and comes before a vowel sound. If you've been studying your t sound allophones, you might recognize that this is a place that the t sound can be dropped. Therefore, you'll often hear Santa called 'Sanna Clause.' 'Sanna' is a perfectly acceptable pronunciation. (I've got it written as s-a-n-n-a to demonstrate the pronunciation. I've never actually seen it spelled that way). The vowel sound in Santa's last name, Clause, is pronounced with the aw sound. C-l-a-u-s-e and c-l-a-w-s (like a cat has) are homophones and are pronounced exactly the same.

In the story you'll listen to next week, Santa Clause will be called St. Nicholas, which is another name he goes by in different parts of the word. In the US, you're much more likely to hear Santa, but St. Nicholas does sneak in from time to time. Both are referring to the same person.

In the traditional stories, Santa flies around the world in his sleigh which is pulled by flying reindeer. The words sleigh and reindeer both have a long a sound (long a). The word sleigh (s-l-e-i-g-h) does actually have a pronunciation we can predict because words spelled e-i-g-h are usually pronounced with a long a. Other examples are the number eight and the word weigh, spelled w-e-i-g-h. The word reindeer, however, is not phonetic. It's one of those words you just need to know how to pronounce. So listen closely: reindeer. Now repeat after me: sleigh, reindeer.

Santa and his reindeer traditionally land on your roof and Santa comes into your house by sliding down the chimney. Never mind that most houses don't have chimneys anymore. Parents always seem to find some explanation to give their kids for how Santa gets into the house to put presents under the Christmas tree. Christmas trees used to always be real trees that people went into the woods and found or bought from a Christmas tree farm. I think it's funny that they're called tree farms. Usually it's just rows and rows of trees, but I like to picture there also being cows or sheep or something. However, a lot of people now buy fake trees made of plastic. Another word for a fake tree is an artificial tree. So the phrases fake tree and artificial tree are synonyms. Personally, I prefer real trees from the tree farm.

Of course, there are some people out there who really don't like Christmas. We call these people Scrooges. The term came from the Charles Dickens novel called A Christmas Carol written in 1843. In A Christmas Carol, the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, was grumpy and mean and didn't care about people and he didn't celebrate Christmas. The book has been made into plays and movies that have had every interpretation possible. Since it's such a popular holiday story, everyone knows the term Scrooge.

Another term for the same type of person is Grinch, based on the Dr. Seuss book, The Grinch who Stole Christmas. Not surprisingly, it's also about a character who hates Christmas. So, in general, the terms Scrooge and Grinch are synonyms. Both of these terms are so engrained in popular culture that they're actually pretty important for you to know.

So, let's review all of these terms again. I'll say each of them and leave time for you to repeat. Ready?

Merry Christmas
Santa Clause/St. Nicholas
Christmas tree
fake tree/artificial tree
tree farm

By the way, you'll also see Christmas written as the letter X, hyphen, m-a-s, or even just X-m-a-s. Some people find this really annoying and even disrespectful of the holiday, so I wouldn't recommend writing it that way unless you know the person who will read it.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

Original image by Infamusmobb00.