The Greek word “melos” underwent an interesting evolution before it entered the Latin language. It originally meant “limb”, although in the earlier writers, it only occurs in the plural. From this it came to mean a “musical member or phrase” and thence “a song”, a use which first occurs in roughly the 6th century B.C., in the Homeric Hymn to Pan, followed by Pindar, Herodotus, etc. Aristotle and Plato both use it to mean “the music to which a song is set.” It was also compounded with the noun “aoidē” or “ōidē”, related nouns such “aoidos – singer”, and the verb “aoidiaō – to sing”, to make “melōidē” etc., the origin of the English word “melody.”

In Latin, it was taken on as early as the 3rd century BC (by Naevius, and in the following century by Cato and Pacuvius), but only in the later, musical sense, along with some of the compounds like “melodia.” The Church Fathers often pair it with the adjectives “dulcis” or “suavis”, both of which mean “sweet”, which seems to have been inspired by its similarity to the Latin word for “honey – mel (mellis).” St Jerome, for example, writes in a letter to a friend of his named Heliodorus, speaking of the conversion of formerly barbarous nations to Christianity, that they “have broken their hissing into the sweet song of the Cross.” (stridorem suum in dulce Crucis fregerunt melos). Likewise, a sermon mistakenly ascribed to St Augustine includes the phrase “ut musicum melos sonis dulcibus reddat – that he may render a musical song with sweet sounds.” In his book of Etymologies, St Isidore explicitly connects it with “mel”: “euphonia est suavitas vocis; haec et melos a suavitate et melle dicta – ‘euphony’ is the sweetness of voice; which is called both ‘song’ from its sweetness and from ‘honey.’ ”

In the Middle Ages, particularly after the 6th century, knowledge of Greek declined very greatly in Western Europe (as knowledge of Latin did in Eastern Europe), but never vanished completely. In some periods, especially the Carolingian Renaissance, there was even a kind of vogue for using Greek words in certain genres, one of them being the composition of liturgical hymns. A later imitator of this fashion, St Fulbert, bishop of Chartres in the early 11th century, uses the word “melos” with a Latinized form of the genitive (“meli”) in a hymn that he wrote for the Easter season. Here is the original Latin text, and a translation by the Anglican cleric John Mason Neale (1818-66), who is rightly regarded as one of the best translators of Latin hymns into good poetic English.

(This manuscript of the mid-11th century (British Library, Cotton Vesp. d. xii; folio 74v, image cropped), is one of the two oldest with the text of this hymn.)

Chorus novae Jerusalem,
Novam meli dulcedinem,
Promat, colens cum sobriis
Paschale festum gaudiis.

Quo Christus, invictus leo
Dracone surgens obruto
Dum voce viva personat
A morte functos excitat.

Quam devorarat improbus
Praedam refudit tartarus
Captivitate libera
Jesum sequuntur agmina.

Triumphat ille splendide
Et dignus amplitudine
Soli polique patriam
Unam facit rempublicam.

Ipsum canendo supplices
Regem precemur milites
Ut in suo clarissimo
Nos ordinet palatio.

Per saecla metae nescia
Patri supremo gloria,
Honorque sit cum Filio
Et Spiritu Paraclito. Amen.

Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem!
To sweet new strains attune your theme;
The while we keep, from care releas’d,
With sober joy our Paschal Feast:

When Christ, Who spake the Dragon’s doom,
Rose, Victor-Lion, from the tomb,
That while with living voice He cries,
The dead of other years might rise.

Engorg’d in former years, their prey
Must Death and Hell restore to-day:
And many a captive soul, set free,
With Jesus leaves captivity.

Right gloriously He triumphs now,
Worthy to Whom should all things bow;
And, joining heaven and earth again,
Links in one commonweal the twain.

And we, as these His deeds we sing,
His suppliant soldiers, pray our King,
That in His Palace, bright and vast,
We may keep watch and ward at last.

Long as unending ages run,
To God the Father laud be done;
To God the Son our equal praise,
And God the Holy Ghost, we raise.