Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

See How They Bunch

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2010

On Saturday, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the performance room of the studio where they have their piano lessons. We were there for the annual Christmas (well, “holiday,” I suppose) performance, with students playing or singing the Christmas songs they’d been practicing for the past month and a half. It was a casual event, with the families sitting at tables drinking coffee or hot chocolate that the studio owner had put out in the lobby, and kids coming up to the stage to do their piece whenever they felt like it.

As Doug and I ate Hershey’s kisses from the table’s centerpiece, one of the voice students and her teacher took the stage. They adjusted the mike, and the student began to sing, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style…”

Ah, “Silver Bells”, the now-classic 1950 song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It’s OK, I guess. It doesn’t make me gag like a few songs that should never have been written, like “Wonderful Christmastime”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. But there’s one line that does make me wince every time I hear it. It’s in the second verse.

The student finished the first verse, and was joined by her teacher as she launched into the chorus. Not long now.

“Hey, guys, here it comes,” I murmured, as student and teacher sang, “Strings of street lights, even stop lights / Blink a bright red and green”. Actually, I like that line. It’s clever, poetically pointing out how the red-means-stop, green-means-go traffic lights fit right in with city Christmas decorations. I picture looking down a city street with a series of green traffic lights receding into the distance, turning red one by one. (Or all at once, depending on how the city engineers arrange it.)

The student continued: “Hear the snow crunch.” I braced myself. Adam grinned as he watched me. The teacher finished the line: “See the kids bunch.” Ooh! There it was!

As the singers finished the verse, singing “This is Santa’s big scene…”, Doug and Adam stifled their giggles. They know I hate that line. “See the kids bunch”? Since when is bunch a respectable intransitive verb meaning “to gather in clusters or bunches”?

Well, since at least 1873, according to the OED. Here’s their attestation:

Buffalo grass and gama grass‥show a tendency to bunch together, leaving large portions of the surface bare.

Hold on! Not so fast. I’m OK with bunch together and bunch up, especially if we’re talking about inanimate things like kinds of grass. I may not like it when my underwear bunches up, but it’s good to have a way to talk about it. What I have a problem with is plain old bunch with nothing coming after it. But it looks like that’s been around for a few years, too; the OED has this attestation from 1924:

The really big people don’t talk—and don’t bunch—they paddle their own canoes in what seem backwaters.

Furthermore, the verb is still in use. Here are a couple of more recent examples from CoCA:

Bunching is a big problem,” Scholl says, “because if they’re doing that, they’re not grazing and gaining weight.”

It seems astonishing, considering that the Kenyans run with such graceful domination in Boston and New York and everywhere on the roads, bunching and surging in packs, such elegant wolves.

All right, I guess I can’t accuse Livingston and Evans of inventing this verb for the sole purpose of making a rhyme. But I will say that to find it, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty hard.

UPDATE, 12/16/2010: Corrected date of writing of song. (Thanks, Dad.)

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4 Responses to “See How They Bunch”

  1. The Ridger said

    Although in your favor, the sentence before the “bunching is a problem” sentence (where “bunching” is really a noun), uses “together”:

    Their attacks cause cattle to bunch together, lie down, or wade in water to protect their forelegs.

  2. The Ridger said

    Huh. I just realized, we always sang that line as “strings of shop lights, even stop lights”. Never even noticed it. I wonder if I can learn the new (correct) lyrics after all these years.

  3. I’m still trying to figure out why everyone hates “Wonderful Christmastime” so much, but that has nothing to do with linguistics….

    So, I will say this: I would agree that using the line “see the kids bunch” is scraping the bottom of the barrel for a rhyme, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it otherwise. It is not weird to have things bunch without a particle/adverb helping them, but it is weird that it’s kids doing the bunching. I mean, how often do kids really bunch along the street (or anywhere else, for that matter)?

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