Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Merry Gentlemen?

Posted by Neal on December 25, 2010

At the Christmas Eve service earlier this evening, the bulletin listed one of the songs as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”, and I saw by the placement of the comma that the words merry and gentlemen had been taken to be parts of a single noun phrase, merry gentlemen. Well, why wouldn’t they be parsed that way? If you don’t take merry to modify gentlemen, then where else are you going to slot it into the sentence?

In fact, I didn’t know until recently. All I knew was that somehow, for some reason, the lyrics weren’t intended to refer to merry gentlemen. But once I started to think about it, even putting together merry and gentlemen in the seemingly sensible way meant that the rest of the sentence was just God rest ye. What did that mean? Isn’t God rest his soul something you say about a dead person? “May God grant eternal rest to you merry dead guys”? (This use of rest, of course, would be a present subjunctive, but I don’t have any more to say about that.)

According to the current Wikipedia entry, rest “denotes ‘keep or make’,” so God rest ye merry would mean “may God keep or make you merry.” I had never known that rest could be used this way. The closest syntactic possibility I knew of was an intransitive use, with rest taking an adjectival complement, as in the expression rest assured. I had never heard someone use it with a direct object before that adjective complement, saying something like, “I rested him assured that we would be on time.” The closest thing the OED has to a transitive rest that takes an adjective complement after its direct object is a reflexive use. They give a citation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

I haue her soueraigne aid, And rest myselfe content.

However, below all the single-word definitions, the OED did provide a separate definition for the entire phrase (God) rest you merry, with fair and happy listed as archaic alternatives for merry, meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness”. Their list of citations should be enough to convince anyone that that’s what’s going on in this song. Here are a few of them:

1548 T. Cooper Bibliotheca Eliotæ (rev. ed.) , Aue, bee thou gladde: or ioyfull, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery.
1568 U. Fulwell Like wil to Like in W. C. Hazlitt Dodsley’s Sel. Coll. Old Eng. Plays (1874) III. 342 God rest you merry both, and God be your guide.1597 Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet i. ii. 83 Rest you merrie.
1600 Shakespeare Merchant of Venice i. iii. 57 Rest you faire good signior, Your worship was the last man in our mouthes.
1663 A. Cowley Cutter of Coleman-St. ii. viii. 26 Help me into my Bed; rest you merry, Gentlemen.
1774 J. Burgoyne Maid of Oaks i. ii. 14 Rest you merry, Master Carpenter—take a draught of the ‘Squire’s liquor, and welcome, you shall swim in it, when all is over.
1823 Scott Quentin Durward I. ii. 31 ‘Rest you merry, fair master,’ said the youth.

So that’s that: merry is part of the verb phrase rest you merry, or if you wish, part of the set expression God rest you merry. Just one more little thing, though: What’s with the ye? In fact, this question comes up no matter how you parse the merry: As the direct object of transitive rest, the pronoun should be the archaic objective form you, not the archaic nominative form ye. Compare the Bible quotation “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Another question would be why it’s rest you merry instead of rest yourself merry when God’s not involved. Perhaps just because the expression God rest you merry was well-enough established to override the yourself.)

The title isn’t always written as God rest ye merry. According to Wikipedia, the song was first published in 1833, and its lyrics are written as rest you merry in various sources from the early to mid 1800s. Their guess is that the substitution of ye “may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.” According to Joseph Bottum, in an article from 2008 in the Weekly Standard, Christmas carol writers of the Victorian era often tried to do this:

That feeling of oldness, that power to seem traditional, remains a requirement of the music–even though the Christmas carol is essentially a Victorian invention. ….
The universal Christmas canon [the Victorians] established contained some genuinely older songs: “The First Nowell,” for instance, and the Wesleyan “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound traditional.

I recommend reading the whole article, because Bottum tackles the clanking syntax and strained rhymes of the rest of the song, including the verses you never sing.


5 Responses to “Merry Gentlemen?”

  1. The Ridger said

    “brought tidings of the same” is the bit that always stops me. I can only parse it to me “of God”, which is … strange. (And the “by name” is funny.)

  2. westwood said

    Ha! Great explication. I always thought there was something fishy going on, thanks for describing it so nicely.

  3. pj said

    @ The Ridger – I’ve never taken the verse ‘From God our heavenly father / A blessed angel came / And unto certain shepherds / Brought tidings of the same …’ as making stand-alone sense – I parse ‘the same’ as referring back to the events as explained in the previous verses (there seem to be slightly variant lyrics, but the gist is of course that ‘Jesus Christ our Saviour was born … at Bethlehem … and laid within a manger’).
    But I agree, ‘the son of God by name‘ is odd.

    Incidentally, there’s a brief discussion of the ‘God rest ye’ line (an an alternative lyric altogether) among the characters of the BBC radio comedy ‘Cabin Pressure’ at the opening of the Christmas special edition, available here for a couple more days only.

  4. […] Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this: In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born, And […]

  5. […] but it has a secondary meaning of “being alert.” A couple hundred years ago, people used the expression “rest you merry” to encourage one another to keep well. Knowing this helps explain the comma between “merry” and […]

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