December 30, 2009

Blog hijack

Language Log is a terrific blog with a long list of prolific contributors. It can be a little unwieldy to follow, not only because of the number of posts but because each post is usually an in-depth article and is followed by many insightful comments.

Not so one Dec. 25 entry, in which Arnold Zwicky traces the divergent sources of a clever line by Paul Krugman (writing on politics: "No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause.").

The entry itself is brief, and the comments section is abruptly truncated by Zwicky after a commenter went off-topic, attempting to move the discussion from language to politics.

Zwicky writes, in his terminal comment, writes:

I've had it repeatedly explained to me that when you open a posting to comments, the comments section then "belongs to" the commenters (who are free to take up any topic they want), not to you. I reject this idea, but hardly anyone seems to agree with me.

Well, I certainly agree with him, as do many other bloggers who moderate the comments on their sites. Unfortunately, Zwicky has decided that to obviate such a hijacking in the future, he simply won't allow any comments at all.

I do hope Zwicky reconsiders this drastic measure. It's a shame the rest of us should miss the lively discussions Language Log usually inspires just because one crank realized there's a bigger audience for his political views there than at his own blog.

December 26, 2009

An urban legend in a pear tree

A co-worker recently brought up that modern myth about the origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and asked whether it was for real. This is the story that says the song is a coded reference to Scripture. "Five golden rings" stands for the Pentateuch, "Four calling birds" equals four gospels, and so on.

Some claim the song originated in the 16th or 17th century, during the period when English Protestants were persecuting Catholics. “Twelve Days” is said to be a sort of catechism song for teaching the tenets of the faith to children, with the premise that Catholics couldn’t put anything in writing for fear of imprisonment, torture or hanging.

Illustration © Michele Paccione • Fotolia

This origin story, as I told my colleague, is nonsense. It apparently was made up by someone who either couldn’t be bothered to look up the truth, or didn’t care. Like the bogus story about candy canes being the letter J for Jesus, the “Scripture code” story about the “Twelve Days” song is an attempt to cram religious symbolism into a folk custom.

There are several problems with the “Scripture code” story. Chief among them is that there would be no reason to “encode” such information, because the items cited are common to both Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

Also, the things that the items in the song symbolize change from one version of the story to another. For instance, the three French hens are alternately said to represent the Trinity; the virtues of faith, hope, and charity; or the gifts of the magi.

And what good is a catechism song only sung one month out of the year?

Actually, the song most likely originated as a “memory and forfeits” game for Twelfth Night (the Epiphany, Jan. 6). The “first day of Christmas” is Dec. 26.

In a memory and forfeits game, the leader sings the first line, and the players follow along. With each round, the leader adds a new phrase, and as people mess up—as we so often to once you get into the double-digits of this song—they are “out,” until only one player remains. It is in this context that the song was first published, in the book Mirth Without Mischief, in 1780. Similar songs are recorded earlier in French.

Whether by translation or through the passage of time, some errors appear to have crept in. The “calling birds” were originally “colly birds,” colly (or coal-y) meaning black, therefore “blackbirds.” And “five golden rings” may originally have meant ring-necked pheasants, making the first seven gifts all birds.

What one’s true love was supposed to have done with 28 birds, not to mention all those people, is not known. And it’s OK to not know. Not knowing is preferable to inventing falsehoods.

December 25, 2009

I bring you good tidings...really.

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

—John 3:31-36

That's neither holly nor jolly, is it? Yet this is today's gospel reading from the Presbyterian Church USA's daily lectionary.

Many people are taking today as a vacation day. But is is a holy day? Are we stopping to consider what it meant for God to put on flesh and dwell with us? Are we accepting his testimony? Or are we performing some cultural norms out of habit, or because everyone else does?

I skipped decorating this year. Not so much as a wreath on the door. And for half a minute, I worried that my neighbors might think I'm not a Christian because there's nothing on the outside of my house to show it.

Meanwhile, around the corner, our neighbors have a yard full of inflatable decorations and more lights than Vegas. I would live in fear of such an electric bill.

What, I ask you, does an electrically lighted inflated Santa have to do with the immanence of God?

By contrast, I attended my first Christmas Eve worship service at my new church last night. I had the pleasure of sitting in front of the most tone-deaf person I have ever heard. I soon got over the little thrill of not being the worst singer in the room for once. As the saint behind me offered up "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" with all the gusto she could muster, I thought of this Psalm, which also happens to be on the lectionary for today:
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.…
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.
Sing praises to the King of Kings. Accept His testimony. It's not holly. It's not jolly. It's holy.

December 23, 2009

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is caroling. Even though we closed John Calvin P.C. at the end of October, some of us gathered recently to go caroling at the homes of our former members, many of them homebound. I've always been touched by how moved people are when we perform this simple service for them.

The custom of caroling goes back a long time. The first known collection of carols was published in 1521. But the trouble is, so many Christmas carols are so old the words are baffling to modern folk.

How about that line in “Deck the Halls” — “don we now our gay apparel?” Yeah, the teenagers get a giggle out of that one.

And what about “Here we come a-wassailing?” Does anyone go wassailing anymore? Or even know what wassail is?

Wassail was brought to English by Viking invaders. The Norse phrase “ves heill” is a toast: “to your health.” To go wassailing involves drinking toasts to the health of your friends. The custom of caroling originated with wassailing. The word “wassail” also came to describe the drink itself, usually mulled cider, sometimes spiked. I suppose if you were going around drinking at all of your friend’s houses, you might start singing, too.

Good King Wenceslas, who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen,” was a real person. He wasn’t a king, though. He was the Duke of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was born c. 907 in the castle of Stochov, near Prague. Although the castle is gone, the church he attended still stands.
Christianity was a fledgling religion then, and there was much conflict between Christians and Pagans in Bohemia. Wenceslas’ mother, in fact, was Pagan, and opposed his support of Christianity. But he was raised by his grandmother, who was Christian.

Wenceslas’s support of the church and his charity to the poor led to his being honored with a song, but not in his lifetime. He died in 929. The words to his carol were not written until 1853, which may be why confusion as to his title crept in.

The music is an old tune (though not as old as Wenceslas), Tempus Adest Floridum, which dates from the 13th century. The same tune is used in the carol “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.”

As for the feast of Stephen (whose martyrdom is described in the book of Acts, Chapter 7), it takes place on Dec. 26.

And a Happy New Year

We all sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, even though few people outside of Scotland know what it means. “Auld lang syne” translates, literally, as “old long ago,” and means, more or less, “the good ol’ days.” So “we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne” means, roughly, “we’ll toast the good old days.”

Whether you drink your toast with spiked wassail is up to you.

December 19, 2009

As the risk of sounding like your mom -- look it up

Any time an e-mail starts with something like "IT IS FOR REAL..." you can be pretty sure it's not. The capital letters are the major tip-off.

Someone actually sent me this oldie that's not a goodie recently:
"...I do not usually forward messages, But this is from my friend ... and she really is an attorney. If she says that this will work - It will work. After all, what have you got to lose?"

"I'm an attorney, And I know the law. This thing is for real. … Bill Gates sharing his fortune. … Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it..."

And make you a billionaire without your having to spend years building a business that produces software used by millions of people every day.

Bill Gates is sharing his fortune, all right, but he's sharing it with genuinely needy people who don't have, like, a roof over their head and food to eat, OK? Not lazy Americans who haven't figured out that if you Google "Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test," you'll find a bunch of pages telling you it's a hoax.

I wrote about this in OBJ back in 2003, and bunches of people wrote about it before me, including the venerable, under the brilliant heading of "Thousand Dollar Bill."

So here we go again, kids. Do us all a favor: When you get one of these e-mails, visit and look for it. You will be amazed at how many of these things are complete fabrications.

I should say you may be amazed. If you're a jaded journalist, you won't be amazed at all, just sad. Not only sad that so many people pull these hoaxes, but that so many people fall for them.

December 3, 2009

The most fun I ever had losing

Over at The Anomaly, the online forum where the Marcher Lord Select contest is being conducted, matters have taken an interesting turn.

Remember when I said there was no Simon Cowell in this contest?

As I quickly discovered, the participants are keen and well able to offer insightful commentary. Some of it may be a tad snarky, but none is cruel or rude. They are always helpful and constructive. One author even re-wrote her pitch right there in the forum based on reader input.

Many of us have formed extraforum partnerships to continue appraising one another's work. I e-mailed my first three chapters to Robynn, for example. After giving me her excellent critique she wrote, "This is fun! I hope you're enjoying it, too."

I am having a blast.

A couple of days ago, Publisher Jeff Gerke posted this thought:

I love that you guys are forming your own crit group partnerships. I didn't realize that one of my secondary goals in all this should've been to bring you folks together for an amazing meeting of the minds. I'm glad you're way ahead of me.

This is the beauty of networking, whether it happens online or off. Connections are made, and new projects develop therefrom. I doubt anyone could have planned it this way.

I would go so far as to say those of us who've been "voted off" are now having a better time than those who are entering Phase 3, for the pressure must be increasing as the competition gets tighter. The rest of us are free to critique and encourage one another. It's like a support group.

I call it "Writers Anomalous."