Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Down With Rudolph!

I'm not a Grinch. Really. I'm not. I love Christmas, both for its religious significance and its pervasive cultural presence. Lights, decorations and goodies. What's not to love?

But I do have a few quibbles. I don't like to hear Christmas carols in October, and I've made my position clear that Thanksgiving should not be observed amid Santas, elves on or off the shelf, angels or creches.

And I don't like Rudolph. Does that make me a bad person? Sorry. Rudolph is an upstart, and he has shoved that red nose right to the center of the celebration. Rudolph first appeared in 1939—the same year Hitler invaded Poland. Coincidence?

Unlike the Fuhrer, who blew across Europe with the speed of lightning to achieve his dream of world domination, Rudolph held back, planning and plotting, no doubt. Which one is the genius now?

Maybe the canny reindeer just felt the need to wait for the World War to blow over before implementing his own blitzkrieg. His beginnings were humble, first showing up in a promotion for the department store Montgomery Ward. Yes, Virginia, Rudolph started his career as a shill for a retailer. His creator retrieved the copyright for the reindeer's hard-luck tale and published a children's book in 1947.

Then came the master stroke—lyrics and a tune were written promoting Rudolph. Cowboy songster Gene Autry recorded it, and the song was the smash hit of 1949 (the same year Mao took control of China. Coincidence?). That cheesy song is second only to White Christmas in the holiday hit parade.

Rudolph is definitely a latecomer to the holiday lore. Santa Claus was practically invented by Clement Clark Moore in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, published in 1823. I'm sure visions of sugar plums danced in my head when I was a child, even though then and now, I wouldn't know a sugar plum if I choked on one.

Mr. Moore is the undisputed expert on the jolly old elf. And how many reindeer does he say pulls the airborne sleigh? Eight! Eight, tiny reindeer. That's it. Yet every present-day depiction of Santa's flight includes that mid-20th century interloper. Donder, Blitzen and the gang have been reduced to also-rans.

Rudolph has achieved his dream of Christmas domination. For now. But what goes around, comes around. Someday there may be a Hubert, the blue-eyed reindeer, with a feel-good story and a knack for promotion, who will kick Rudy right out of the harness.

Reindeer games. What's not to love?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry, Grammarians

Christmas is a most traditional time. We have our customs and rituals that make the season bright. Whether it's turkey or lasagna for dinner, or opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, or decorated cookies or chocolate-covered cherries, or all of the above, there are some things we just have to do or it isn't Christmas.

Christmas carols are at the heart of all that tradition. For my seasonal music taste, the more medieval the better. Give me "Coventry Carol," "Verbum caro factum est" and "Gaudete." But most of our Christmas notions are Victorian innovations, with a Dickens Christmas as the apotheosis of the holiday.

Because singing carols is part of the ritual, it is satisfying even when we don't quite understand what it's all about. One carol frequently heard this time of year is an example—"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

Notice where the comma goes in that title. This is where even Dickens—or, at least a walk-on character in "A Christmas Carol"—misunderstands this carol. From "Stave I, Marley's Ghost":

"Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —
"God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!"

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

Not only does the hapless singer change "rest" to "bless," he, or the author, moves the comma so that he is calling for a blessing on one merry gentleman, not an apt description of old Ebenezer Scrooge.

The more accepted version has us wishing joy and pleasantry to uncharacterized gentlemen. The "rest" here means "keep" or "make." You may also note that Dickens's caroler says "you" rather than "ye." People who look into this sort of thing say the carol first appears in the 18th century with "you" in the first line. Later, "ye" is substituted, perhaps to make the carol more…medieval. 

Apparently 18th century carolers agreed with me. Medieval is better.

N.B. The reference to St. Dunstan in the Dickens quote alludes to a legend that came into currency in the 11th century about the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Before his elevation, the Benedictine monk worked as a blacksmith or silversmith. The legend says the Devil appeared to him in his cell and tempted him, but Dunstan got the better of him by clamping his metal-working tongs on Old Hob’s face. That's going medieval on him, for sure.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Don't be misled

Sometime back I wrote about those snare-words that lie in wait to embarrass us. We have read them—many times—but we have never heard them said, and so, when we sprinkle our sparkling repartee with them, the trap springs. We bungle the pronunciation.

My most recent dustup with a snare-word was "wastrel," which I have always said—in my head—as though it rhymes with "wassail." My friend gleefully pounced, pointing out that since it means a wasteful good-for-nothing, it naturally has a long "a."

Today I found out that I needn't have coined a term like "snare-word" to refer to these imps. They already have a name: "misles." The name is inspired by what is arguably the most common word-we've-said-wrong-since-grade-school—"misled." While I thought all mispronouncers of this misle said "MY-zuhled," I also learned that a significant minority see the word "isle" in there and, thus, give it a one-syllable variation.

The fascinating (to me) article*  that set me straight on that also included a list of misles, many of which have earned that designation through the sad waning of the hyphen (see Hyphen, we hardly knew ye). Among the horribles are "apply (not lemony, more sort of … )," bedraggled (bed raggled)," "beribboned (berry boned)," "molester (mole ster)" and the truly horrible "middecade (middie cade)."

My favorites, though, are "unshed" pronounced as the past tense of the mysterious verb "to unsh," and "unionized acid, "which, instead of denoting a dearth of ions, calls up a vision of Hydrochloric and Sulfuric, in jeans and work boots, meeting the other fellows down at the union hall.

There are more misles out there than I ever expected. Send me more examples! I promise not to be a wastrel.