What the heck is the mistle in mistletoe, and what do toes have to do with it? To answer that, we turn, as usual, to its etymology. In Middle English, the word was spelled mistelto, and in Old English, it took the forms of mistiltan and misteltan (so you can see that there are no toes involved; the word just developed that way). The first part of the word here is missel, which could refer to the "basil" or "misteltoe" plants, and the second part is tan, meaning "twig". Missel is where all the action is: it might be from a Proto-Germanic word meaning "excrement", mist, through a connection of how the plant reproduces (by dropping seeds, much like excrement). This is only a theory, but the most likely one; if true, it would be from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like meigh and meaning "urinate". Back to tan! Through Proto-Germanic tainaz, it derives from Proto-Indo-European, but we're not sure exactly how. So, mistletoe really means "urine twig". Perfect for the holiday season!
Adam Aleksic is a sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University. He also has disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.