Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

You Better Not Shout

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2009

Yesterday I heard a first-grade boy singing

You better not shout,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m tellin’ you why. . . .

He got distracted before he could get to “Santa Claus is coming to town”, but he already had me humming the song to myself, trying to remember what the real words were. It was hard after hearing the ones he sang, which were so close that they were interfering with my recall, but after a few seconds I managed to pull them up:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

More Christmas Song Confusion

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2008

jesus_nativityDoug 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.

frostyContinuing 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.

stnickAnd 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.

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Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Multiple-level coordination | 13 Comments »

Candy Canes

Posted by Neal on December 21, 2007

Potential conflicts for recently married couples, as they determine how Christmas will be celebrated in their new household:

Gifts: Do you open some on Christmas Eve, or do you save them all for Christmas Day?

Christmas Eve: Do you go to a midnight service, or an afternoon one? (Or neither?)

The word candy cane: Do you pronounce it with the stress on candy, or on cane?

My wife and I still have not reached a reconciliation on the last item. My pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the first word. It’s the same stress pattern you get with compound nouns like Christmas tree and Nativity scene. Her pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the second word, like what you’d do with pumpkin pie or Christmas Day. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas-related, Compound words, Stress and focus, Variation | 16 Comments »

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 »