In a Word: A What in a Pear Tree?

A closer look at the word ‘partridge’ leads to an unexpected source.

Red-legged partridge eating on the ground (Shutterstock)

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is probably most parodied (and, for my money, the absolute worst) Christmas song out there today. And considering that the actual twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and run to Epiphany on January 6, it would be not only commendable but more accurate to save Christmas shoppers the aural anguish of the song and wait to play it for those making returns and exchanges after the big day has passed. 

I have no plans to analyze, etymologically or financially, the lyrics of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I want to focus only on that first gift, the partridge in the pear tree. Did you know that the partridge gets its name from an anglicized Old French word that finds its roots in the name of a bodily function not normally associated with an avian species? 

Partridge, which can also be found in the 1200s spelled partrich, comes from the Old French pertis, which came from Latin perdicem, which evolved from perdix, what the Greeks called the bird. That word comes from the verb perdesthai, which is where this etymology gets weird: Perdesthai means “to expel intestinal gas.” 

Partridges aren’t particularly known for their flatulence; it’s believed they earned their name because the sound their beating wings make when they take flight resembles the low rumble of a gastric gust.  

What’s more, Mark Forsyth — aka The Inky Fool and author of The Etymologicon — surmises that “the pear tree of the song is almost certainly a confused anglicization of pertis to pear-tree,” doubling the level of intestinal exhalation hidden in the feathered gift of the first day of Christmas. 

Somehow, knowing this little bit of word history makes “The Twelve Days of Christmas” just a little more bearable when it pops up on stores’ holiday music playlists while I’m out shopping. 


If your interest in the etymological effects of keister breezes has been piqued, read my 2018 column “An Airing Out of ‘Feisty.’ 

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. First of all, I agree 100% with your feelings on this particular Christmas song as stated in the first paragraph. I’ve felt this way since I was a young child. The good news is I rarely hear it any more. If I were forced to have to hear the whole thing, just START with the 12th day working your way back through the long list just ONCE, and that’s it.

    Great Shutterstock image of this partridge, and glad you cleared their otherwise good name in paragraphs 4 and 5. I liked ‘The Partridge Family’ during its original run on ABC, and the occasional re-run here and there is a nice visit to the first (overlooked) half of the 70’s. I’m pleased Shirley Jones is well, and still acting, Happy Holidays to her!


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