Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Christmas Song Confusion

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2008

jesus_nativityDoug and Adam participated in our church’s Christmas play last Sunday (uh, the Sunday before last? two Sundays ago?), and as I listened, I noticed a couple of changes the 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 Lord has come!” Not the Lord is come, but the Lord has come. I think the motive for both changes was the same: Too many kids would mess up the unfamiliar words and forms and say them this way anyway, so they might as well get everyone “singing from the same hymnbook” (Ha! Get it?). And if you’re wondering why it should ever have been the Lord is come in the first place, Grammar Girl explains it in one of her more linguisticky episodes. I’ve linked to it before, but I’m doing it again here for convenience.

A few days later, Doug and Adam and I were wrapping presents in the living room while I had the iPod shuffling through the Christmas music. As it played “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I found myself wondering once again about the line

Oh come, let us adore him.

Wasn’t it strange to be suggesting that we should do something that usually you don’t have conscious control over? It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s be surprised!”, or “Let’s love to go to the movies!”, or “I know, let’s hate runny scrambled eggs!” I wasn’t wondering as much as I did when I was a kid, because when I took high school Latin, one of the first things we did was learn to recite the Latin version, “Adeste Fideles”. I saw that the line Oh come, let us adore him corresponded to the Latin Venite adoremus — so adore was clearly a pretty direct borrowing from Latin. Later in the class I learned that orare meant “to pray”, and ad was a prefix that could go with a lot of verbs. So I figured that adore must have originally meant something like “pray to”, and then undergone a semantic shift. Nevertheless, I still wondered about it somewhat, because during all these years, I’d never actually gotten around to looking it up.

As I was thinking all this, Doug said, “Why do they say, ‘Oh come, let us adore him’?”

“You know, Doug, I’ve wondered about that for years,” I said. I told him my suspicion, and then hit on a radical idea. I could turn around, and without even standing up, reach the dictionary in the bookshelf behind me, and find out once and for all what was going on with adore. In short, I was right. The earliest definition was to revere or worship, and the “really like” meaning came later. Now that I’ve looked at the online OED, too, I see that the word entered the language in the early 1300s, and the “highly regard” meaning that has eroded to “really like” first appeared in the 1500s.

frostyContinuing on the subject of confusing words or phrases in Christmas songs, I heard “Frosty the Snowman” playing, and it occurred to me that the line

With corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal

was just asking to be mondegreened. I checked it out, and sure enough, at least one person mis-heard the line in the way that I was thinking.

stnickAnd last, here’s another line from “The Night Before Christmas” (or if you really want to be pedantic about it, “A Visit from St. Nick”), which I’ve written about before:

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

What do you know? It’s another multiple-level coordination, one that I never noticed until this year. We have a verb phrase (sprang to his sleigh), another verb phrase (to his team gave a whistle), and an entire clause (away they all flew like the down of a thistle) joined by a single and.

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13 Responses to “More Christmas Song Confusion”

  1. Your household sounds like the one I grew up in, where we kept the dictionary on the dining room sideboard, for easy reference during mealtime conversation.

  2. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    About “Let us adore him” and translations: First, the current Catholic hymnal used in the US is called Adoremus; the people who chose that title (“let us worship”) were obviously thinking of the oldest meaning. Second, Swedish has a loan translation of that same Latin verb; one of its words for “worship” is tillbedja, which also means “pray to”.

  3. Christine in Baltimore said

    I enjoy your newletter so much, but please put the period inside the closing quotation mark.

    from the newsletter: Latin version, “Adeste Fideles”.

    • New Zealand said

      That convention came about as a requirement of typesetting and the fact that the metal blocks with the periods (or full-stops) or commas on them were fragile and tended to be damaged if they were the last object in the sentence. See:
      As the reference notes, there is no longer any need for this convention, but it’s the convention (at least in the US). So, Christine in Baltimore is correct in Baltimore, but not in Birmingham. Unless, of course, that is Birmingham, Alabama. Just two people separated by a common language . . .

  4. The Ridger said

    Christine, please never read anything British.

    But seriously, why did we decide to let newspapers drive our punctuation? The period clearly belongs outside the quotation mark if it’s not part of the quotation, no?

  5. Not exactly a mondegreen, but I remember my son being in a nativity play and saying he was one of the Wise Men – Frank, who brought insects to the Baby Jesus!

  6. viola said

    @ Ridger: It’s funny you would bring that up because I get totally confused about where periods go in regards to quotation marks and parentheses. Can anyone give a quick explanation? I’ve seen it both ways. Is it really dependent on which country a person is from?

  7. Ellen K. said

    Viola: If a punctuation is part of a quote, of course, it goes in the quote marks. But otherwise, my understanding is, rules vary and do what you prefer, or else adhere to the style guide for the publication you are writing for, if you are writing for publication. Yeah, basically, the British do it one way, the Americans another, but seems to me anyway that it’s not a constraint. I’m American and I do it the British way because it’s (I think) more logical.

    As for “adore”, I find the use of adore for an action of a sort (a mental action, though physical actions may accompany it) rather than merely meaning “really like” quite normal, but probably because I’m used to that use in church. I never even thought about it being different from the secular use of the word before.

  8. The Ridger said

    The standard American usage is to put periods and commas inside the closing quote regardless, but other marks only if they belong to the quote. The British usage is to put ONLY those marks that belong to the quote inside the closing quotation mark. I have been told that the American usage change because it save room on the printed pages of newspapers; equally it could be (like many of Webster’s spelling changes) a deliberate attempt to differentiate US from UK usage.

    Like Ellen – and, apparently, Neal – I have decided to go British, because it makes more sense, but I probably succumb to habit plenty of times without noticing. It’s really amazing how attached you can get to a rule with no reason – probably more than to the ones that actually bite you when you break them (like commas around relative clauses).

  9. viola said

    @ Ellen and The Ridger:
    I thought the British style made more sense too. It seems to provide a pattern or style that is highly readable and logical. Thank you for defining that a little more.

    Happy Holidays!

  10. John Cowan said

    The American style is the older style, as looking in British-printed books in Google Books will show. It was originally done that way because something like ‘”end”.’ looked bad and was subject to damage when locked into a forme because of the wide spacing along the baseline between ‘d’ and ‘.’. The current British version is far more logical, but American editors are massively more conservative than their British counterparts.

  11. […] is from here) […]

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