Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Christmas-related’ Category

Wild and Crazy WTF

Posted by Neal on December 18, 2007

About this time of year back in 1991, I was reading Henry Beard’s Latin for All Occasions, a collection of sentences such as “I didn’t expect you home so soon” and “The waitress drew a smiley face on my check” into Latin. It wasn’t funny enough to buy for myself, but that was OK; I had bought it to give to my cousin for Christmas. For that reason I was being extra careful as I turned the pages, so my cousin would never know I had turned his gift into a secondhand one. For the same reason, I made Glen promise he wouldn’t tell what I had done when I shared a few of the translations with him.

Two weeks later, I unwrapped Glen’s Christmas present to me: a copy of Henry Beard’s Latin for All Occasions. There was a card tucked inside the cover. It read:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas-related, Coordinated WH words | 5 Comments »

I Love The

Posted by Neal on December 8, 2007

Since October, Doug and Adam’s piano teacher has been assigning them exclusively Christmas songs. Each week she’s assigned a couple more, and told them to keep playing the ones they’ve mastered so that they can play them at an informal recital. By now they have a repertoire of about a dozen songs each, but Doug strives to do his daily practice in the same amount of time as he took when he tackled his first two Christmas songs. He’s been treating us to “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Joy to the World” as fast as he can play them. As loud as he can, too. It’s even weirder when he plays his fast, loud versions of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger.”

Ah, yes, “Away in a Manger.” The song I played a crummy rendition of on the xylophone in front of my second grade class. Source of “till morning is night”. And come to think of it, source of another misheard lyric. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Diachronic | 2 Comments »

Dry Leaves That Before the Wild Hurricane Fly

Posted by Neal on December 24, 2006

Doug was showing me his reindeer-themed craft/snack from the Christmas holiday winter party at school last week. The kids had spread chocolate icing on an oblong cookie, and put on pretzels for antlers, and a single M&M (or as Glen puts it, an M) for a nose. What color M&M, you ask? Brown, the color of all Santa’s first-string reindeer’s noses? Or red, the nose-color of only one reindeer, who’s only called upon when the weather is foggy? Red, of course! Doug asked if he could have a brown one so he could do Prancer, and the parent who was helping suggested he chip off the candy shell. She was surprised when she came by later and found he’d actually done it.

Adam agreed that whenever teachers did a reindeer craft, the reindeer was always Rudolph. Then he tried to remember the other reindeer’s names. Doug and I recited the relevant couplet from “The Night Before Christmas,” and after the reindeer names we kept on going: “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away, dash away all!” I kept on going:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the housetop his coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas, too.

Doug said, “What? What part is that?” That part wasn’t in the book he read at school.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Kids' entertainment, Syntax | 10 Comments »

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 »

Wake Up in Hellish War

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2005

Last weeek Doug and Adam were practicing singing “Silent Night” for their Sunday school Christmas program. This was actually quite an accomplishment for Adam, since slow, solemn songs often make him break out in sobs. With some work, though, he got so he could listen to it, sing it, and even peck it out on the piano. Now he and Doug were having some fun with it. Adam sang,

Noisy day…

“Hey, yeah!” said Doug. “It’s opposite day! Hey, Dad! What’s the opposite of holy?” I thought about telling him profane, but decided to go with plain old unholy. Doug continued with

unholy day…

I got to thinking about a seminar in lexical semantics I’d once taken, where I learned that the concept of opposite isn’t as straightforward as it seems. The most general definitions have opposites as pairs of words that are very similar semantically but which differ on at least one dimension. Silent and noisy would be gradable opposites: things can be silent, noisy, or neither, but not both. Night and day: This is a pair of relational opposites, since something can be day, night, or neither, but not both, AND we’re not talking about points on some dimension. I’m assuming holy and unholy would be another pair of gradable opposites, given the wide variety of things in the world that are neither holy nor unholy.

Meanwhile, Doug and Adam were moving on:

Nothing is wild, nothing is dark.

Interesting, I thought. They’re looking for opposites of nouns, adjectives, and even quantifiers now, but is makes it through unchanged. But if you’re gonna change the all along with the calm, then you really need to get the is, too: Saying “Nothing is wild” means the same thing as “All is calm.” Yeah, what they should really do is–

“Dad, what’s the opposite of virgin?”

“Oh! Uh, is there a word for that? I guess … non-virgin.”

That would be a complementary opposite: To the best of my knowledge, either you’re a virgin or you’re not. Luckily, Doug and Adam just wanted to finish the song, and didn’t ask for details.

Posted in Christmas-related, Lexical semantics, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

With Holiday, it’s Quantity that Counts

Posted by Neal on December 10, 2005

When I was a kid, I thought Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, and Merry Christmas were interchangeable phrases, to be used according to one’s whim on Christmas cards or tags on presents, or when greeting someone in person. Only years later did I learn that (1) there were actually other holidays than Christmas during December, and (2) the first two phrases were often seen as wimpy, politically correct generalities used by people who wanted in on the fun (or increased sales opportunities) of Christmas without actually having to recognize it as a Christian holiday.

But, of course, there are holidays other than Christmas that come near the end of the calendar year, so what are you supposed to say if you want to wish someone some kind of seasonally appropriate holiday wishes? Sure, if you know they celebrate some particular holiday, you can mention it specifically. But if you don’t, I guess the complainers’ answer would be just not to say anything at all. Actually, one answer I’ve heard is just to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone you please, and trust that no non-Christians will take offense at your carelessness. And if any do, tough noogies for them.

If you don’t like either of those options, then it’s useful to have a general term (holiday) that covers the disjunction Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. (And what about Easter or Passover or Halloween/Samhain or any other holidays during the year? I’ll save that for another post.) People who universally condemn the phrase Happy Holidays are, IMO, willfully ignoring other widely celebrated holidays that are out there. However, the complaints you hear this time of year go beyond just Happy Holidays, into the more general substitution of holiday for Christmas in other contexts. And here I’m with them: Violations of Grice’s Maxim of Quantity are annoying.

I’ve mentioned the Maxim of Quantity before (here and here), and Semantic Compositions talks about it here, but to give a couple of new examples, imagine someone who introduces himself to you by saying, “Hi, my name is either Bill or Frank.” Oh, you infer, he goes by either name. But later, you find out that his name is definitely Bill, not Frank, and that nobody knows him as Frank or calls him Frank as a nickname. Bill has been perverse and uncooperative in not providing you as much relevant information as he could and should have. Or suppose a company tells you that for a fee, it will notify you whenever someone requests a credit report on you from “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” It knows that you will interpret one of the three to mean any of them, but actually the way they operate is that they notify you only when someone requests a report on you from Experian, which after all, is “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” (This example comes from Glen at Agoraphilia, but I can’t find the relevant posting.) If they had respected the Maxim of Quantity, they would simply have said Experian, rather than phrase things in such a way that the possibility is created for other, inaccurate interpretations.

And now, suppose that in December you go to a store selling “holiday trees” (to take one of this year’s most ridiculed examples). Accepting that holiday(s) at this time of year refers to the set including Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year’s Day, etc., then it sounds like the store is selling trees for two or more of these holidays. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Hanukkah tree or a Thanksgiving tree. They’re selling Christmas trees, so calling them holiday trees violates the Maxim of Quantity in the same way as the earlier examples.

On Christmas Day last year I had to call the customer service line for some company, and got this message: “Our office is closed for the holiday.” There’s only one holiday I know of that occurs on December 25th, so what is the vagueness accomplishing?

Actually, we spent our Christmas in a hotel, because an ice storm had knocked out our power two days before, and it was down to 40 degrees in our house (and I don’t mean Celsius). The newspaper talked about people who’d had to take shelter in school gyms for “a warm, if not miserable, holiday.” (I think they meant “warm, if miserable”.) The only holiday in that time frame was Christmas. Were they worried that not all of those in the shelter celebrated Christmas? Well, if they weren’t having a warm but miserable Christmas, they weren’t having any other warm but miserable holiday, either, so why say holiday at all in that case? (I checked: Hanukkah began December 7 last year, and Kwanzaa doesn’t start until the 26th.)

Though the holiday examples violate the Maxim of Quantity, they don’t cause the confusion my earlier examples did. In those examples, you don’t know Quantity has been violated until you learn that Bill’s name isn’t Frank, or you find that someone has obtained credit cards in your name and you were never notified when the credit cards requested your credit history. With the holiday examples, cultural knowledge makes the meaning clear, but you know at once that something is a little weird, and you wonder why. If they could have simply said “Christmas” and didn’t, what was the reason? Is there something shameful about it? This is the kind of reasoning that leads many Christians to take offense, and even causes some of the more conspiracy-minded to talk about a War on Christmas.

I don’t think it’s a war on Christmas. For one thing, it’s not always even Christmas that gets replaced–I had someone wish me a pleasant holiday on the day before Thanksgiving, and Googling the phrase “holiday menorah” produces a number of hits (not counting ones that say, “holiday tree is as dumb as saying holiday menorah“). I think it’s just that some people get in the habit of replacing some specific holiday name with holiday in situations where there’s a good reason to, and then overgeneralize. In other words, don’t attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Posted in Christmas-related, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance | 5 Comments »

Down Will Come Santa and Fill the Stockings

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2005

Doug and Adam are learning about planned obsolescence. This year, they somehow got interested in Bionicle, a line of toys from Lego. The Bionicle universe is populated by robot-like figures, and there are new ones each year. Not only can you assemble them from Bionicle sets, you can read about them in books and comics created by Lego, and see their adventures in (so far) three direct-to-video Bionicle movies. Once his interest was piqued, Doug remembered the two Bionicle sets some friends had given him for his birthday in 2004. Adam, meanwhile, got a Bionicle book published in 2004, all about that year’s Bionicle figures. Once he and Doug realized there were four figures other than the ones Doug already had, “collect them all” immediately set in. The trouble is, that series isn’t in stores anymore–all you can find are the 2005 Bionicles. After a number of frustrating discussions, Doug and Adam have finally accepted that no matter how many times they check the toy shelves in the stores, they’re not going to find those four Bionicles from 2004.

I knew Doug had learned and generalized the concept of planned obsolescence when he said, “2005 is almost over, so the 2005 Bionicles won’t be around much longer, either. We’d better buy more of them now!” I could almost see the CEO of Lego drumming his fingertips together and saying, “E-e-e-xcelle-e-ent.”

Yesterday, though, Doug said he and Adam had new hope for getting some 2004 Bionicles. “Lego doesn’t make 2004 Bionicles anymore,” he said, “but Santa doesn’t buy toys, he makes them! So he can make some 2004 Bionicles!”

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more. I guess we’re reaping what we’ve sown here.

But on the subject of Santa Claus, consider a sentence like this one:

Down came Santa and filled all the stockings.

What is being coordinated here? Before the and we have Down came Santa, a complete sentence. After the and we have filled all the stockings, not a complete sentence because it has no subject. Now obviously, Santa is supposed to be the subject of both verbs, but typically you’d expect the subject of coordinated verbs to come before either of them, like this:

Santa [came down] and [filled all the stockings].

This kind of coordination (which for reasons I won’t go into is called either an SGF or SLF coordination) has been written about a lot in the linguistics literature on German, because it was noticed in German first. The most common example of it comes from Tilman Hoehle, who wrote the first analysis of this kind of coordination:

In den Wald      ging der Jaeger    und   fing einen Hasen.
Into the forest   went the hunter   and   caught a hare.

Like Santa in the English example, der Jaeger is the subject of both ging and fing, but gets thrown right in the middle of the coordination of verb phrases. I suspect this it the kind of coordination Chris Waigl had in mind when she commented on one of my Friends in Low Places coordinations:

This is a strangely cerebral exercise for me because if you come from German, as I do, many of the WTF coordinations look totally unremarkable.

Coming back to my conversation with Doug, I see that I made another SGF coordination when I wrote:

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more.

The subject of both acknowledged and said no more is I, but like Santa and der Jaeger, it appears after something that belongs to only the first verb phrase: the “Hmm” quotation.

In later developments, Doug’s statement regarding Santa Claus and 2004 Bionicles has now become, in his estimation, a test for whether Santa is real, or (as he’s sometimes wondered) just kids’ parents. If he gets some 2004 Bionicles, Santa’s real; if not, it must be the parents. I wonder what he’d think if he only knew about eBay.

Posted in Christmas-related, Other weird coordinations, Semantics | 3 Comments »

We, We, We, All the Way Home

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2005

Now it’s thank-you note season, and I haven’t even begun any of mine yet because I’ve been helping Doug and Adam write theirs. When I’m helping just one of of them, I usually just ask him to tell me something that he liked about whatever gift we’re writing about, and then I write down what he says, leaving in all the unusual syntax, idiosyncratic word choices, and improperly regularized plurals and past tenses. Then he signs it and we’re done. To make things easier, Doug and Adam work together with me on a single note for any gift that they receive jointly. But this method brings its own complication, one that I call the “first-person Christmas newsletter identity crisis.”

You’re reading a Christmas newsletter, and let’s say it’s a pretty good one–not one of those that makes you grind your teeth, with two or three or four exclamation points at the end of every sentence, but one that straightforwardly fills you in on what your friends have been doing that you didn’t know about because you never bother to call them like you’ve been meaning to. It talks about what the kids have been up to; so far, so good. Then it starts talking about the adults: “We’ve been remodeling the house,” etc. Still OK. Then it zeroes in on one of them: “Marsha is still trying to write a novel…” Aha, you think. It must be John writing this. We means “Marsha and me, John.” But then when you get to the part about John, it says, “John got a new job in May.” What? Not, “I got a new job in May”? Who’s talking to me here?

I don’t know of a good solution to that problem. It bugs me in the letters I read, but it regularly appears in the ones that we send out. It’s also the problem with a joint thank-you note from Doug and Adam. I can’t have I switch referents from Doug to Adam halfway through the letter without an awkward parenthetical identification of the speaker. So to avoid that, I try to get statements that they can agree on, and express them with a nicely ambiguous we.

As I was trying to get such a statement from Adam today, it occurred to me that this we appearing in the thank-you note was neither of the kinds of we that I’m accustomed to thinking about. One is inclusive we–second person+first person singular: you and I. The other is exclusive we–third person+first person singular: he/she/they and I. This is the meaning I expect when I read Christmas newsletters, and the ambiguity rests on whether the first person component of the meaning is John or Marsha. But the meaning in the joint thank-you note, and now that I think about it, the probable meaning in the confusing Christmas newsletters, is actually first person+first person: I (one speaker) and I (another speaker). When the note says, “We’ve been watching the video you gave us,” we doesn’t mean, “Doug and I,” since that implies only Adam is speaking. Likewise, it doesn’t mean, “Adam and I.” It means, “I, Doug, and I, Adam”. How neat is that?

This meaning hasn’t been in any of the grammar books I’ve read, probably because it only comes into play in special situations like these. It is, however, in the grammar book I looked in just now. CGEL recognizes the meaning on p. 1465:

Usually, the set consists of a single speaker together with one or more others…. It is, however, perfectly possible for the group to contain a plurality of speakers…. In the case of speech this use involves speaking in unison, as in singing, praying, chanting, and the like…. In the case of writing, it may be a matter of joint signatories, of a letter, contract, petition, etc….

They don’t give a name for this kind of we, so I’ll call it multiple-speaker we. What I’m wondering now is whether the single-speaker/multiple-speaker distinction crosscuts the inclusive/exclusive distinction. Are there cases of multiple-speaker inclusive (“me, and, me, and you”), and multiple-speaker exclusive (“me, and me, and them”)? Let me know if you see any!

Posted in Christmas-related, Semantics | Leave a Comment »

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 Snopes.com. 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 »