More Christmas Song Confusion
Posted by Neal on December 16, 2008
Doug 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.
Continuing 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.
And 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.