O Come All Ye Pedants – Frank McNally on the language of Christmas carols
Fairytale of New York is already inspiring folk etymology
There are already outbreaks of the now-annual argument about whether the Pogues really did invent something called the “NYPD Choir” to fit their famous song. Photograph: Alan Betson
A line that many fund-raisers will be singing in streets this weekend - “troll the ancient yuletide carol” – threatens to acquire a new meaning in the age of social media, when trolls have abandoned their traditional location under Scandinavian bridges in favour of hanging out online looking for chances to annoy people.
As I write this, a (mostly good-humoured) debate is raging on Twitter about the correct placement of the comma in “God rest ye merry, Gentlemen” (yes, that’s where it should be). And there are already outbreaks (less good-humoured) of the now-annual argument about whether the Pogues really did invent something called the “NYPD Choir” to fit their famous song.
Perhaps Fairytale of New York is not quite ancient yet, or a carol, but it is already inspiring folk etymology. The latest theory is that “NYPD Choir” was an existing slang term for singers in New York “drunk tanks” like the one in the opening verse. This is fiercely disputed.
Getting back to the comma, it is where it is because the verb “rest” is being used in the old transitive sense of “keep”: thereby expressing a wish that God will preserve the merriness of the gentlemen in question. Pedants complain that the song is increasingly “mis-punctuated” because, as Wikipedia puts it, “rest has lost its [archaic] meaning”.
But in Ireland, at least, I don’t think it has lost it. It may not be used of merry gentlemen any more. It is, however, still common to use it of the permanently resting, à la Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World, when she laments the quality of modern men: “Where now will you meet the like of Daneen Sullivan [who] knocked the eye of a peeler, or Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes [. . .]?”
Deck the Halls
As for Deck the Halls, quoted earlier, there is a similarly lamented tendency now for singers to “toll” the ancient yuletide carol, because the older meaning of “troll” (“sing out in a carefree spirit”) is no longer understood. But conversely, some critics are also sniffy about the habit of saying “God rest ye”, as I did earlier, instead of “God rest you”, calling the former a “faux-archaism”.
I don’t know. “Ye” sounds right to me. But, unlike in England or the US, “ye” is still used here for the second-person plural. And as everyone knows, whatever about addressing merry gentlemen, it is always the correct usage when injuncting Black and Tans to come out and fight.
It hasn’t caused any online arguments yet, but the theme of archaic language in carols reminds me of one I first heard in St Patrick’s Cathedral some Christmases ago. Entitled Puer Nobus Nascitur, it’s very ancient, going back to at least the 13th century.
And in the loose translation by Victorian clergyman George Ratcliffe Woodward, it is full of high-flown poetry, viz: “Unto us is born a son/King of choirs supernal/See on earth his life begun/Of lords the lord eternal.”
Among several eccentricities, however, its climactic verse includes the lines: “O and A and A and O/Cantemus in choro”. On first hearing which, I assumed the “O and A” were short for “Ox and Ass”, which had been mentioned in an earlier verse.
But this didn’t explain when they were being abbreviated now, or why such a venerable carol was taking a turn towards Old MacDonald’s Farm. Only later did I realise that “O et A et A et O” were in the Latin lyrics too and refer to “Alpha” and “Omega”, as symbols of divine omnipotence.
My favourite verse, though, is the one that goes: “This did Herod sore affray/And did him bewilder/So he gave the word to slay/And slew the little childer.”
First there’s that pleasant, verbal “affray”. Yes, we can still cause an affray in the noun sense: it’s the sort of thing that will land you in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve. But it’s good to be reminded that whenever modern-day people are afraid, etymologically, it’s because somebody or something affrayed them.
Then there’s the lovely, albeit accidental, inclusion of the classic Hiberno-English “childer”, just because the Rev Woodward couldn’t think of anything else that rhymed with “bewilder”.
I suppose he could plead poetic licence via the old English festival of Childermas (December 28th). But whenever I hear that C-word, it evokes not so much Childermas as a mass of childer (I was one of seven). Even in the posh surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, I cannot hear the phrase “slew the little childer” without mentally singing it in the accent from “Give Up Yer Ould Sins”.