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 »
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 »
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 [
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 »
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 »
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 »