Christmas is less than a week away! Today we’re going to look at some language issues hidden within a traditional Christmas carol:
This is one of our oldest carols, dating back to at least the 16th century. Take a close look at the first line. That comma looks wrong, doesn’t it? It seems like it should be “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” In fact that’s how it’s punctuated in A Christmas Carol, the classic novel by Charles Dickens.
But the research indicates that this is the correct punctuation. Back then, rest could mean “keep.” So the first line is saying, “God keep you merry, gentlemen.”
In the second line, we seem to be seeing a mistake in word order. It should be “Let Nothing Dismay You.” There are two possible explanations for the wording. The anonymous person who wrote this Christmas carol might have been having a poetic moment. Or perhaps this type of word order was a common usage in the 16th century, when this carol was first composed.
Of course I don’t know which explanation is correct. But I can point out that this kind of transposition – “Let nothing you dismay” – was common in Elizabethan times. In Act IV, Scene 5 of Hamlet, Ophelia says, “Say you? Nay, pray you mark.” (If that seems nonsensical to you, it’s deliberate – Ophelia has gone mad from grief when she says this.)
* * * * * * *
Everyone who’s sat through a Shakespearean play – or sung “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” – knows that language changes over time. Nobody can stop that process – not even those of us who adored our high-school English teachers and think their rules and principles should live on forever.
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” is particularly interesting because it includes two kinds of changes. The evolution from “God rest you” to “God keep you” is a usage change. It has nothing to do with the deep structure of the English language. The meanings of words change all the time.
If you’re old enough to have watched All in the Family when it was a brand-new situation comedy, you witnessed one of those changes. Before Edith Bunker came along, the dictionary meaning of dingbat was “a printer’s ornament.” Now it means “a silly person.”
Deeper structures of language – what we call grammar – change very slowly. (Here’s an example: whom is disappearing.) The meanings of some of the words have changed over the centuries, but Shakespeare constructed his sentences pretty much the way we still do today: subject + verb + object.
And that’s why “Let Nothing You Dismay” in our Christmas carol is so interesting. It’s a true grammatical change. No matter how sophisticated a writer you are, you’ll probably never write a sentence like “Make sure the dress you fits.” That kind of construction has disappeared from English – probably forever.
You might be wondering why anyone would bother making a distinction between usage and grammar. Here’s why it matters: I’ve met many people who think that grammar is an essential subject for writers. They spend hours – days – months – years – memorizing grammar terminology and learning how to diagram sentences.
But English grammar is largely based on word order. If you grew up speaking English, you learned most of the grammar you need to know by the time you started kindergarten. Grammar theory isn’t going to help you write better.
Usage, on the other hand, is both important and difficult to master. Even if you’ve been speaking English all your life, your usage information might need an update or a refresher. (Almost all of my “Instant Quizzes” deal with usage issues.)
I hope you’ll have a wonderful Christmas! Enjoy this beautiful season, and let nothing you dismay.