Wednesday, November 29, 2006

God Rest Ye Merry

One of my Romanian sons asked if we used the word “Merry” for anything but “Merry Christmas,” because he didn’t think he saw it anywhere else. I could think of quick examples, of course, but immediately noticed that they were all from rather archaic phrases that have continued into modern English entirely whole. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry. Merry old soul. God Rest Ye Merry. We don’t use the word much now, not to zip into a sentence as a synonym for cheerful. It is nearly obsolete, but its yearly commonness in Merry Christmas keeps it alive. The other phrases survive because they don’t need explanation to be understood. If you grew up with Merry Christmas, then you know what it means that Old King Cole was a merry old soul, even as a youngish child. You might use merry, in fact, to help you get the meaning by context of soul in that rhyme. We don’t use soul that way very much anymore. Poor souls.

I might use it, but I often use slightly archaic or formal words to mildly comic effect. It’s not going to last. God Rest Ye Merry is already invisible enough that most people think that “Merry” goes with “Gentleman” rather than the first three words of the carol. As Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings push out Merry Christmas, it may be that in two generations the word “merry” is not always understood. It might become one of those words like yule, or nativity, that are kept around only as antiques, a sort of museum-piece. The other phrases with “merry” will then fall out of use altogether, dragging “souls” down with it.

8 comments:

George said...

Well, as the song from so long ago says, "we'll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home," but almost no one uses the term "gay" in that context anymore.

Erin said...

Merry might be on its way out, but why not bring back some good old Shakespearian English? Nothing sounds quite so fun as, "Hie thee hence, for marry hither cometh thine enemy, that waspish, tickle-brained varlet!"

civil truth said...

For that matter, how many know the proper punctuation for the first verse of Silent Night (Hint: there is no period between bright and Round.

As for Shakespeare, there is a whole revivial underway of Shakespearean insults, both original and new.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You mean John Virgin wasn't round?

Erin said...

CT, I actually used the second link when teaching Romeo & Juliet to my 9th grade English class this past month. I told them if they were going to joke around insulting each other (as is the popular display of friendship in adolescents these days), then they had better do it with some style!

Wyman said...
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Wyman said...

I'm not willing to fully enter into the loss-of-"Merry-Christmas"-is-an-affront-to-our-morals with the same enthusiasm as those a few generations above mine, but I do have to say: God help me if I ever say "Season's Greetings." What a terribly inane thing to say.

Perhaps I'll start using "Season's Greetings" at all other times of year, since it should apply anywhere. I'll give it a test run over Valentine's Day.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes Ben, it is hard to take people to task for a well-meant sentiment, even if you believe they miss an important part. Well-meaning sentiments, however clumsy or unfortunately phrased, are not so common in this world that we should seek to punish them.

I like the St. Valentine's thing. I'll bet the drunks on St. Patrick's Day don't get the point, though.