Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Christmas songs’ Category

Who’s Naughty and Nice?

Posted by Neal on December 17, 2006

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.

An intriguing ambiguity. We could take and to be coordinating two embedded questions, one of which has been abbreviated by ellipsis to appear only as nice; that is,

… [who’s naughty] and [who’s nice].

More interestingly, and could just be coordinating two ordinary adjectives inside a single embedded question, like this:

… who’s [naughty and nice].

Of course, this reading is entailed by the first one. If you identify the set of naughty people, and also identify the set of nice people (i.e. find out who’s naughty and who’s nice), then the intersection of those sets will give you the people who are both naughty and nice, whether you intended to find that out or not. Conversely, if you set out to identify just the set of people who are both naughty and nice, you pretty much have to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice in order to obtain your two sets to intersect. Or you could outsource the job, and have someone else find out who’s naughty and who’s nice and just tell you who has both qualities. However, the song gives the clear impression that this is a job Santa does personally, so I think him finding out who’s both naughty and nice is for all intents and purposes the same as him finding out who’s naughty and who’s nice. So if the two are extensionally the same, why focus on intersection of the sets of naughty people and nice people?

The implication seems to be that Santa is less interested in the purely naughty or the purely nice than in those who are both. But why would this be the case? I think Calvin puts it best, in this cartoon from p. 30 of Bill Watterson’s Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat:

I wish Santa would publish the guidelines he uses for determining a kid’s goodness. …Does he consider the kid’s natural predisposition? I mean, if some sickeningly wholesome nerd likes being good, it’s easy for him to meet the standards! There’s no challenge!

Heck, anyone can be good if he wants to be! The true test of one’s mettle is being good when one has an innate inclination towards evil.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Ellipsis | 5 Comments »

Till Morning is Night

Posted by Neal on January 3, 2005

In my last post, I mentioned the substitution of we travel so far for we traverse afar in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” I called this a folk etymology, but actually that’s the wrong term. Folk etymology is what happens when a speaker hears a word that doesn’t seem to make sense, and alters it so that it does; for examples, see this definition.

Over the past year at Language Log, a finer distinction has been under development: Folk etymology is reserved for such a tweaking that (1) has caught on and (2) is phonetically distinct from the original word; eggcorn is now used to refer to a folk etymology that (1) hasn’t caught on and (2) is phonetically identical to the original word, revealing itself only when written down. The canonical example of an eggcorn is the one that became the name for the phenomenon: eggcorn, which is phonetically identical to acorn for the speakers who have it in their lexicon. Cases in which only one of the two conditions for either label is met are a gray area.

As for the travel so far error, I next figured the more accurate term was malapropism, wherein a speaker substitutes one entire word for another that sounds similar. The other cases I had in mind from Doug and Adam’s Christmas play are malapropisms:

  • (Adam, singing “What Child Is This”)
    Haste, haste to bring him log (laud)

  • (other kids, singing “Away in a Manger”)
    And stay by my cradle till morning is night (nigh)

But looking again at travel so far, since this involves the mishearing of a phrase rather than a single word, instead of a malapropism, I guess I’d have to call it a mondegreen. There’s a fun listing of other mondegreens from Christmas songs here at There are even some from “We Three Kings,” but not travel so far.

The Snopes people say this about mondegreens and Christmas songs:

Christmas carols and other holiday songs, rife as they are with seldom-heard words and phrasings and clever wordplay, are fertile fields for the sowing of mondegreens–especially when children, with their limited vocabularies, are involved.

I couldn’t have said it better, so I’ll just say that the same goes for malapropisms. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a few folk etymologies and eggcorns hiding in kids’ renditions of some of these songs, too.

Posted in Christmas songs, Folk etymology, Phonetics and phonology | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Syntax | 5 Comments »

Just Plain Difficult Christmas Lyrics

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2004

Some Christmas song lyrics draw my attention not because they’re ambiguous, but because they’re just plain difficult to parse. As Geoff Nunberg of Language Log observes, “We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque, from the unparsable ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ … to the Pledge of Allegiance….” When Doug and Adam were practicing a selection of Christmas songs for the church pageant, I was helping them with a lyric sheet that they’d been given in Sunday school, and I was surprised to see what the lyrics actually were that I’d just been humming all these years.

The real monster syntactically was “What Child Is This?” Here’s part of the first verse (the only one they had to learn):

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Wow, in just these two lines we have:

  • A relative clause whose subject (who) is separated from its predicate (is sleeping) by…
  • An adjectival passive (laid to rest) and…
  • A prepositional phrase (on Mary’s lap) that’s been put in front of the verb it modifies instead of after it.

Those three facts, combined with the confusion between the forms of lie and lay, result in what must be an unparsable mess to a kid who’s not used to strained poetic syntax. If you intoned it just right, pausing where the commas are, an adult just might stand a chance of understanding it upon hearing it for the first time, but the rhythm of the song takes those pauses right out. If I were a kid, I’d be OK as far as What child is this, who. Then I’d be expecting a sentence with a direct object gap (maybe I see, to give us who I see), or a verb phrase that will take who as its subject. The latter is exactly what seems to come next with laid, which is going to sound like an ordinary, finite, past-tense verb to many present-day English speakers, and especially to a kid who hasn’t had lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid drummed into him. So after I’d gotten past the main verb laid, I’d keep adding the modifiers to it as they came: to rest, on Mary’s lap. But then I’d come to is sleeping, and there the sentence would crash, as I tried to find some place to fit this finite verb in a sentence that had already filled that position. What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap? sounds like a complete sentence, and is sleeping sounds completely superfluous. In other words, the first two lines of the song form a classic garden-path sentence.

Adam learned it just fine, but Doug complained and complained because he actually wanted to understand what he was singing. So I tried translating it for him: “OK, how’s this? What child is this, who was laid to rest, and is now sleeping on Mary’s lap?” He still hated it. I used a “stop making sense” procedure, reciting my translation slowly so he could tell me the exact point when it stopped making sense. It stopped making sense when I coordinated laid to rest with is now sleeping, which to his mind was redundant. I quickly disabused him of that idea, reminding him of the times I’d spent staking out his bedroom when he was a baby, making sure he didn’t climb out of his crib when he was supposed to be taking a nap. Once we got past that, I tried to get him to agree that on Mary’s lap is sleeping was OK, even though is sleeping on Mary’s lap sounded better. He didn’t agree. At that point I didn’t even try to show how laid to rest was equivalent to was laid to rest and. It would have been an exercise in futility. He was just going to have to memorize the words like everyone else.

There was some other twisted syntax in the songs, most notably “We Three Kings,” which I think I’ll save for another post. And moving beyond the syntax, the archaic words in these songs make them ripe for folk etymologizing on the part of the kids who learn them, so stay tuned for a few examples of that.

Posted in Christmas songs, Syntax | 6 Comments »

I Ride the Songs

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2004

Now for some more ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas edition. Here’s a line from “Jingle Bells” that always makes me think for a second or two:

Bells on bobtail ring,
making spirits bright.
What fun it is to ride and sing
a sleighing song tonight!

How exactly does one ride a song?, I wonder. Oh, wait, it’s not:

[ride] and [sing] a sleighing song,


[ride] and [sing a sleighing song]!

That’s hard to get, man: a coordination that looks like it ends nice and neat at the end of a line, but really has the second coordinate stretching all the way to the end of the next line!

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Coordination | 8 Comments »

Twelve Days, 364 Gifts

Posted by Neal on December 5, 2004

I’ll file this one under Ambiguous Song Lyrics. They’re not ambiguous, but there are nonetheless two understandings of them. The question is: By the 12th day of Christmas, how many gifts has the singer’s true love given him or her? Most illustrations I see for the twelfth day show one partridge in a pear tree, two turtledoves, etc.

But the lyrics unambiguously state otherwise. For example, the second verse goes, “On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.” It does NOT say, “By the second day of Christmas, my true love had given to me…”; it says, “On the second day, my true love gave“! So, without doing any kind of grammar tricks, or deliberately choosing the less likely of two readings (since after all, only one is possible), we have to accept that on the twelfth day of Christmas, the singer has received:

  • 12*1 = 12 drummers drumming
  • 11*2 = 22 pipers piping
  • 10*3 = 30 lords a-leaping
  • 9*4 = 36 ladies dancing
  • 8*5 = 40 maids a-milking
  • 7*6 = 42 swans a-swimming
  • 6*7 = 42 geese a-laying
  • 5*8 = 40 golden rings
  • 4*9 = 36 calling birds
  • 3*10 = 30 French hens
  • 2*11 = 22 turtledoves
  • 1*12 = 12 partridges in pear trees

This gives a total of 2*(12 + 22 + 30 + 36 + 40 + 42) = 364 gifts. Implausible, yes, but only a little bit more than the 78-gift total you get by ignoring the repetitions. Ten lords a-leaping or 30 lords a-leaping, either way it’s pretty bizarre.

And with that said, here’s a big, “You’re so literal!” nod of approval to PNC Bank, which each year calculates the total cost of these gifts in current dollars, and it does so with the total of 364. Stay literal, guys!

Finally, in the further interest of literalness, enjoy this debunking of the purported Christian symbolism behind the twelve 364 gifts, courtesy of

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, You're so literal! | 13 Comments »