Wednesday, December 12, 2012

WNW: Christmas Edition #2

After doing a Holiday Edition (please read that one before addressing your Christmas cards and gifts!) and a Christmas Edition (read that one before thinking someone is sacrilegious for using "Xmas") for Word Nerd Wednesday (I like both of those!), I thought it appropriate to do another post before Christmas.

Once again, I'm going back to my linguistics roots with two of my favorite linguists, Dad and Dr. Oaks.

Christmas carols, and I'd bet, songs in general, have a way of retaining archaic terms and phrases. I'm going to talk about two specific carols, both of which I remember for their word nerdy qualities.

"The 12 Days of Christmas"
When my sisters and I were young, we'd make up versions of this song to go with other holidays: Easter or Halloween or maybe another theme altogether.

The song itself is rather odd, though: who gives presents of milk maids and several types of birds? The five golden rings make sense. The pipers piping, not so much.

I imagine there's some cool history to the song itself, but today we're looking at one word in the song, one that's been tweaked into something that makes even less sense than giving lords a leaping to your beloved.

On the fourth day of Christmas, what was given to "my true love"?

I'd be you'd answer that it was four calling birds, right? And just about every recording and written transcript of the song would agree.

Except that what the heck is a calling bird?

My child self imagined a bird that could talk back, maybe like the Mocking Jay in the Hunger Games series.

Turns out that calling bird isn't the original term. It's coaly bird. As in, a coal-colored. As in, a black bird.

Why a loved one would give black birds is a mystery right up there with the geese a laying, but at least a coal-colored bird is something identifiable, whereas a calling bird is not. (Thanks to Dad for this one!)

"Silent Night"
One day in my grammar and usage class in college (somewhere around Christmas of 1994 . . . ahem, yes I'm that old), Dr. Oaks asked if we completely understood the words in "Silent Night."

At first we all sort of stared at him with an "um, duh" look. Until he went line by line.
Silent night, holy night,
Okay, yeah. We got that.
All is calm, all is bright 
Easy. Next, please.
Round yon virgin
Wait, what? The other lines so far were clear statements or descriptions. What exactly is a "round yon virgin"?

It was a weird brain teaser for a second there as we pictured maybe Mary's roundness before giving birth or . . . whatever.

That's when Dr. Oaks pointed out that if we look at the punctuation, rather than the spot where everyone pauses to take a big breath, the full sentence makes sense. Which meant backing up a line:
All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin, mother and child.
Do you see the full meaning? That round yon virgin isn't a statement like the previous parts?

Maybe my class was the only group who hadn't really clued in, but it wasn't until then that I really got that the song said (in modern terms) that everything was calm and bright in the vicinity of Mary and her baby. (It helps to note that round is short for around, so it's a preposition, not an adjective).

Trouble is, carolers rarely sing the line in one breath, but rather as two separate thoughts, so the meaning is often lost with the lines broken up the way Dr. Oaks first read them to us.

Whenever I sing "Silent Night" now, I make a point of mentally carrying the music from bright to round without a breath so that at least I can picture the full meaning of the song, which is far more beautiful that I'd realized.

Remembering that day in class helps me think on that silent night and what it meant for all of us.

(Note: See Grammar Girl for a great post about more archaic grammar in carols.)


Th. said...


I had never though about your Silent Night point. It's a good one.

I wonder if the structure of the melody isn't the problem. It breaks naturally before "round"---I wonder if it does that in the German.

Maybe what we need is a new translation.

Susan Anderson said...

Love your Silent Night insight!


Jessica G. said...

Hey, I always wondered! Thanks for enlightening me.


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