Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 77: Letters to Santa (Part I)

Today, Grammar Grater is getting into the Christmas spirit. Now, we know that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But we also know that if you step foot outside your own front door between Halloween and New Year's Day, there's a good chance that Christmas music will be playing. In the spirit of clearing up confusion in the English language, it's time to set the record straight on what some of those more arcane Christmas carol lyrics mean. If nothing else, this week's episode will equip you if you find yourself in those age-old debates around the tree. For example, the second verse of Jingle Bells includes the lyrics:
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot;
He got into a drifted bank;
And we, we got upsot.

What does upsot mean?

We couldn't find a legitimate reference for the word in any modern dictionaries. But we did find a host of usage notes that indicate upsot was a popular idiom at the turn of the 19th century. From its usage, it's clear that the word upsot means "overturned" or "upset." The word appears in a short story called "Out of Bondage" published in a July, 1897 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It also appears in a March 18, 1899 issue of The Law Times.

And on the subject of Jingle Bells, there are often-confused lyrics in the first verse, as well. The question is often asked, are the lyrics:
Bells on bob-tail ring?

Bells on Bob's tail ring?

A look at the Yale Book of Quotations shows that the lyrics to the first verse of "Jingle Bells" are: "Bells on bob-tail ring." According to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, a bobtail is a "short or docked tail" or "an animal with such a tail."

In the same way, there are aurally confusing words in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," too. On the fourth day, the lucky recipient gets four birds. The question is, are they "four calling birds" or "four colley birds?"

It seemed strange to put this question to a usage guide or a dictionary. Instead, the most logical source seemed to be Everything You Need to Know About Birding and Backyard Bird Attraction by Alan Pistorious. He writes:
"Probably you have dismissed 'colley birds' as just another illustration of proofreading laxness; most singers sing, and virtually all listeners hear, four 'calling birds' … But 'colley birds' they are, the term 'coll(e)y' — a close relative of 'coaly' and 'collier' signifying 'black.' … Colley birds, then, are nothing more exotic than Old World blackbirds…"

And that's where we'll leave it for this episode of Grammar Grater. But we're not finished with Christmas carols quite yet.

Come back next week when we'll tackle the mystery of "wassail," find out what it is about figgy pudding that makes carolers demand it at the top of their voices, and uncover why Frosty the Snowman is at the heart of a 1950s Hollywood scandal.

Sources: The Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman, The Yale Book of Quotations by Joseph Epstein and Fred R. Shapiro, Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, and Everything You Need to Know About Birding and Backyard Bird Attraction by Alan Pistorius.

Music from this episode: "Jingle Bells" by The Ray Conniff Singers; "Here Comes Santa Claus" by Elvis Presley; "Silver Bells" by Booker T. and the MGs.

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