Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We’re Three Kings

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2004

Our power still hadn’t come back on by the time we needed to pack for our trip to Texas to visit my parents. Even those who got their power back didn’t always get to keep it, as ice-encased trees continued to fall and take down power lines with them. So we decided Doug and I would come down here, while Adam and his mom stayed in Ohio, to make sure everything was OK when the power came back, and to be on hand in case the neighbor’s tree, which has been leaning toward our upstairs bathroom more each year, decided to come crashing in. That’s why I’m sitting here blogging in the dark while Doug sleeps, waiting for 2005 to arrive in this time zone after wishing my wife a long-distance happy new year in hers.

So while I’m here, here’s what I was going to say about another of the Christmas songs Doug and Adam sang in the church program, “We Three Kings.” Here are the first two lines:

We three kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.

The first surprise I got when I read the lyric sheet was that all the time I’d been thinking it was we travel so far, I’d been dead wrong. TraVERSE Afar, that’s what it really was! I made sure Doug learned this little detail, and then at the rehearsal listened as all the other kids blithely sang, “We travel so far.” Oh, well. What can you expect when probably not a single one of them has ever heard the verb traverse? It’s even tough for me, since I’d always thought traverse was a transitive verb–you can’t just traverse, you have to traverse a field or something, like maybe a fountain, moor, or mountain. (I have a few more Christmas song folk etymologies to comment on before I’m done with that topic.)

The second surprise I got was from the punctuation. I’d always thought the are was an auxiliary verb, which combined with bearing gifts in the next line to form the present progressive verb phrase are bearing gifts. Sure, it was awkward having that big pause after are at the end of the line, when in ordinary speech it and bearing would be run smoothly together. But it was the only way I could parse the sentence. Now, though, I see that the first line is supposed to be a clause all by itself. Are isn’t a helping verb, it’s the main verb! The first line isn’t saying anything about what the three kings are doing; it’s just saying that they are three kings! Just like you’d say, “Barney a dinosaur is,” or “Doug and Adam my sons are,” right? And the bearing gifts in the next line is just a reduced adverbial clause, more or less equivalent to “As we bear gifts.” Sheesh, I never would have gotten that, and that’s saying something for a guy who wonders how you can ride a sleighing song.

5 Responses to “We’re Three Kings”

  1. Rachel said

    I thought that what they were traversing was “field and fountain, moor and mountain.” But that song is really messed up. 🙂

    One of my friends used to think the first line of that song was “We three kings of Ory and Tar.”

  2. […] 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. […]

  3. retro said

    Hard to believe Christmas is already around the corner. I am ready for some Thanksgiving turkey though.

  4. […] « We’re Three Kings Unable and Unwilling […]

  5. […] Sunday school teachers had put in the lyrics of the carols they sang. First of all, they’d changed traverse to travel in “We Three Kings”. Second, they had the kids singing “Joy to the world! The […]

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