Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Love The

Posted by Neal on December 8, 2007

Since October, Doug and Adam’s piano teacher has been assigning them exclusively Christmas songs. Each week she’s assigned a couple more, and told them to keep playing the ones they’ve mastered so that they can play them at an informal recital. By now they have a repertoire of about a dozen songs each, but Doug strives to do his daily practice in the same amount of time as he took when he tackled his first two Christmas songs. He’s been treating us to “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Joy to the World” as fast as he can play them. As loud as he can, too. It’s even weirder when he plays his fast, loud versions of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger.”

Ah, yes, “Away in a Manger.” The song I played a crummy rendition of on the xylophone in front of my second grade class. Source of “till morning is night”. And come to think of it, source of another misheard lyric. I heard a choir sing it when I was five or six years old, and in verse two they sang:

I love [ði] Lord Jesus

I remember wondering why they had pronounced the as [ði] instead of [ðə]. Careful enunciation? But why only there, instead of in “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay”? Oh, well, just one of those weird things, I guessed.

I think I was probably in high school before I finally thought about that question again, and realized what I thought was a the was actually thee. In fact, thee shows up a couple more times in verse three, in “I ask thee to stay” and “take us to heaven to live with thee there”, but I don’t remember noticing them back when I heard that choir as a kid. Maybe they didn’t do verse three, or maybe when I heard a thee that I couldn’t take as a the, my mind just ignored it.

Now I know that I wasn’t the only one who made that mistake. Whenever I hear someone sing that line in verse two as

I love [ðə] Lord Jesus

…I know that they’ve parsed thee as the. When they sing it as [ði], they might know it’s thee, or they might think it’s the and just be embarrassed to ask why they’re supposed to pronounce it funny. When they sing it as [ðə], though, there can be no doubt.

There’s also no doubt when they spell it out as the. There are 3450 Google hits for +”away in a manger” +”I love the Lord Jesus”, but only 900 for +”away in a manger” +”I love thee Lord Jesus”. For the people who hear thee, Lord Jesus as the Lord Jesus, what do they do with the thees in the last verse? Some leave the thee just fine, but apparently it never clicks with them that there was another thee in verse two: I get 590 hits for +”away in a manger” +”I love the Lord Jesus” +”ask thee to stay”. And there are plenty who recognize all the thees, of course: 700 hits for +”away in a manger” +”I love thee Lord Jesus”+”ask thee to stay”. Of course, there’s the usual caveat about not putting too much credence in the mysteriously and proprietarily generated Google hits; to illustrate, a search for +”away in a manger” +”I love the Lord Jesus” -“ask thee to stay” doesn’t get the expected approximately 3450-590=2860 hits, but 700 again.

Some people avoid the confusion by just substituting you for thee: “I love you, Lord Jesus” (3280 hits; only 250 if we restrict the search to pages that also have “ask you to stay”).

What I think is neatest about I love the Lord Jesus is that speakers who have made the error can go undetected indefinitely; it’s only when they finally produce the words themselves that the reinterpretation comes to light. A lot of language change works this way: for example, the interpretation of versus as verses, or the many eggcorns that have been documented.

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2 Responses to “I Love The”

  1. Matthew said

    Great post. I didn’t know that people parsed it as “the”; I just always thought of the word as “thee.” I have noticed, however, that a lot of people (including, sometimes, me) sing hymns without thinking of what they really mean. One especially confusing one is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in it’s most common translation. And in “Be Thou My Vision,” I’ve seen the “naught” parsed as “not.”

  2. Viola said

    I was always taught it was “thee” as well. My husband is constantly getting after me for enunciating every syllable when I speak. He jokingly tells other people that he thinks I purposely use multi-syllabled words or add a syllable that shouldn’t be added to throw him off. This is not the case. My parents taught all their children to enunciate their words, and mumbling was disallowed in our house.
    I often wonder if a lot of the enunciations (or lack thereof) come from the fact that when a person hasn’t memorized their words and they’re up on stage with a few other choir members, a little lackadaisicle “mumbling” of a’s, and’s,the’s, etc. occurs. The possibility of just plain nervousness could blur enunciations as well. I’ve heard so many funny interpretations of Christmas songs from children’s choirs such as “Hark The Hairied Angels Sing.” Apparently, that’s the way some children hear words!
    Yesterday, as I was volunteering in the school’s art class, a little creative 2nd grade girl somehow managed to write “Oh Christmas Tree” with the inclusion of a partridge without the pear tree among other colorful phrases! The regular art teacher was sick, so the children had a substitute teacher. They all had a little more time on their hands after their project was completed. By the end of the class, this little girl had just about completed a song book. I didn’t get to peruse her book, but would have loved every second had I had the chance.
    Thanks for including the part about “eggcorns” with the link. It’s fascinating how our language evolves out of “mistakes!”

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