Saturday, December 7, 2013

Unraveling the Confusing Grammar in Older Christmas Carols

Many of our most popular Christmas carols date back to the 19th century or earlier, so it shouldn't be surprising that some of the original lyrics sound somewhat odd to the modern ear. Many of us have sung some of these venerable songs since childhood without stopping to consider what certain of the lyrics actually mean. "Silent Night," for example, begins with the following lyrics:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child . . .

I'd always believed that the third line referred to the fact that Mary was pregnant (i.e., round) and young. Not so. In fact, "yon" is an antiquated word that means "that one" or "that one over there." As a result, the first three lines refer to the fact that all is calm and bright around that virgin and child over there. (No, not that virgin and child -- the other ones, over there.")

To help clear up this and several other misunderstandings, the good folks at the internet magazine The Week have posted an article that walks us through six of the leading grammatical confusions that arise in older Christmas carols. As someone who for years thought Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" included the line "Excuse me while I kiss this guy," I'm grateful to have it:

Incidentally, the song "Silent Night" dates back to 1816, and was composed in the Austrian village of Oberndorf. The lyrics were originally written as a poem by Joseph Mohr, the village priest. According to legend, when the church organ broke on Christmas Eve afternoon, Mohr gave his poem to a friend named Franz Xavier Gruber when the church organ broke and asked him to write a simple melody that could be performed with a guitar accompaniment at that evening's midnight mass. It worked out pretty well, for the song is generally recognized as the most famous Christmas song in the world.

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