Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Who’s Naughty and Nice?

Posted by Neal on December 17, 2006

I’ve started to get a few more hits on my posts on Christmas songs, so I’ll write about one that I never got around to last year or the year before. In “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the second verse goes like this:

He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

An intriguing ambiguity. We could take and to be coordinating two embedded questions, one of which has been abbreviated by ellipsis to appear only as nice; that is,

… [who's naughty] and [who's nice].

More interestingly, and could just be coordinating two ordinary adjectives inside a single embedded question, like this:

… who’s [naughty and nice].

Of course, this reading is entailed by the first one. If you identify the set of naughty people, and also identify the set of nice people (i.e. find out who’s naughty and who’s nice), then the intersection of those sets will give you the people who are both naughty and nice, whether you intended to find that out or not. Conversely, if you set out to identify just the set of people who are both naughty and nice, you pretty much have to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice in order to obtain your two sets to intersect. Or you could outsource the job, and have someone else find out who’s naughty and who’s nice and just tell you who has both qualities. However, the song gives the clear impression that this is a job Santa does personally, so I think him finding out who’s both naughty and nice is for all intents and purposes the same as him finding out who’s naughty and who’s nice. So if the two are extensionally the same, why focus on intersection of the sets of naughty people and nice people?

The implication seems to be that Santa is less interested in the purely naughty or the purely nice than in those who are both. But why would this be the case? I think Calvin puts it best, in this cartoon from p. 30 of Bill Watterson’s Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat:

I wish Santa would publish the guidelines he uses for determining a kid’s goodness. …Does he consider the kid’s natural predisposition? I mean, if some sickeningly wholesome nerd likes being good, it’s easy for him to meet the standards! There’s no challenge!

Heck, anyone can be good if he wants to be! The true test of one’s mettle is being good when one has an innate inclination towards evil.

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5 Responses to “Who’s Naughty and Nice?”

  1. Nander said

    It’s a very fun and interesting analysis, but at least here growing up in North Carolina, we’ve always sung it “gonna find out who’s naughty *or* nice.” Which, now that I think about it, makes way less sense.

  2. Glen said

    “[I]f you set out to identify just the set of people who are both naughty and nice, you pretty much have to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice in order to obtain your two sets to intersect.”

    I disagree. You can start by identifying all people in the naughty set, and then check each member of that set to see if they’ve also been nice. This does not entail finding the nice set, unless we assume that everyone has at least one of these qualities (and thus that the union of the naughty and nice sets is equal to the set of all people).

  3. Neal said

    Glen’s right. Dang, that was a stupid mistake, wasn’t it?

  4. [...] an applicant. It’s the same kind of meaning you get when you say Santa keeps tabs on the naughty and nice children. A kid doesn’t have to be both naughty and nice for Santa to have a file on them. [...]

  5. […] blogged about this song before, on the semantics of who’s naughty and nice, and a later verse in the song made my four-part tweet on Christmas song lyrics that make me […]

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