From good tidings to Parson Brown, find out what your favorite holiday tunes actually mean

Victorian christmas carolers making a vintage cardThe holiday season seems to be the only time of year that we Americans happily revert to Victorian English, singing songs about donning gay apparel and demanding figgy pudding. Since we’ve been singing these songs since childhood, it’s only natural that we don’t pause to wonder what these phrases mean or where they come from…

But after yet another year of hearing Ray Charles belt out something about a dude named Parson Brown in “Winter Wonderland,” I decided it was time to get to the bottom of what a few of my favorite carols really mean… For starters, what is a carol? Well, the word dates back to 1300s France, where it meant “a joyful song or dance in a ring.” It became more strongly associated with religious Christmas songs in 1500s England, although today we use the word to describe pretty much any song associated with the holiday.

So, here’s a look at where a few favorite modern-day carols come from, as well as what some of those perplexing lyrics really mean:

1.) Winter Wonderland: Who the heck is Parson Brown?
This 1930s tune has a line so odd and perplexing, it has its own Snopes entry:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, ‘Are You Married?’ We’ll say, ‘No man,
but you can do the job while you’re in town!’

So who is Parson Brown? It turns out this verse is about a couple frolicking in the snow, imagining their snowman is a traveling parson who’ll help them elope. Yeah, not exactly the stuff of kids’ songs, which is why Parson Brown got the boot for a circus clown in the ’50s.

2.) We Wish You a Merry Christmas: I brought good tidings, now give me pudding.
Dating back to 16th-century England, this fine tune was sung by carolers who’d bring “Good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.” (A tiding is simply “a piece of news,” though now we usually use it in the plural and associate it with good news.)

This jovial little line is followed by a much more demanding one: “Now bring us some figgy pudding! Yes, bring us some figgy pudding! Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.” Carolers would typically be rewarded by the wealthy in a community with treats like figgy pudding. Much like the word tidings and the tradition of caroling, this treat has fallen out of fashion, too — so don’t go around asking people for pudding in exchange for your tidings.

3.) Deck the Halls: Decking, donning and trolling the holidays away
This little Christmas ditty has become a modern-day American classic, but the melody dates back to 16th-century Wales. The lyrics we sing today were popularized in the mid-1800s, which is why we have no idea what the hell they mean. Some choice phrases:

Deck the halls: Decorate the halls lavishly (related to “getting decked out”)
Don we now our gay apparel: We’re sporting our finest threads!
Troll the ancient yuletide carol: Sing that old Christmas tune in a round (you know, like “Row, row, your boat…”)

4.) Jingle Bells: I told you to jingle those bells, dammit!
I know what you’re thinking — “I understand Jingle Bells perfectly fine, thank you!” But do you?  Do you really? Did you ever stop to wonder, just who or what is jingling those bells? Grammatically speaking, the phrase “jingle bells” could mean a number of things:

Jingle, bells!: Hey, bells! You better jingle if you know what’s good for you…
Jingle bells (noun): A specific kind of bell (esp. the kind on a one-horse open sleigh)
– (You) jingle bells!: Hey, dude driving this sleigh — make those bells jingle!

It turns out the third one (“jingle bells” as an imperative phrase) is actually what the songwriter intended. He also wrote this as a Thanksgiving song.  Go figure.

These factoids are my gift to you — now go forth and amaze (er, annoy) your friends and family at that holiday dinner party.

The Mayan calendar pushes us to define “the end of the world” as we know it

© olgachirkova - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably heard that the world is scheduled to end on December 21, 2012 according to an ancient Mayan calendar that’s stirring up a whole lot of panic.

Despite expert proclamations that the world will NOT end this month (including one from NASA), there’s a growing movement of “preppers” actively preparing for the end of the world as we know it (personally, I’m preparing to hear a whole lot of R.E.M.)

So why is the Mayan calendar’s 12/21 end date causing such a ruckus across the globe, while Yucatán is busy organizing a Mayan cultural festival that runs till 12/22? Well, the Mayan calendar prediction is just so darn specific. Usually doomsday predictions are more along the lines of “when evil triumphs over good” — which is left open to quite a bit of interpretation. It’s a whole lot easier to get riled up over a particular date.

But why are people preparing for the end of the world if, you know, the world will cease to exist and it won’t matter how many Twinkies and gas masks you stockpiled? Well, it has to do with how you define the end of the world. Eschatology (basically, the study of the end of the world) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” — and how you view these  events depends a great deal on your religious and/or cultural background.

It seems to me there are three main definitions of the “end of the world” that affect your decision to prepare, or not to prepare: 1.) A cataclysmic event (maybe a meteor?) that causes a period of drawn-out chaos before life ceases to exist on earth; 2.) An event (perhaps a battle between good and evil) that will mark the end of the world and your assumption into Heaven; and 3.) A light switch-style event — the world existed, now it doesn’t. If you believe in 1 (and maybe even 2), you’re more apt to prepare for the end.

Interestingly, two of the major words we use in our language to describe the end of the world (armageddon and apocalypse) both stem from the Christian tradition. The word armageddon comes from the New Testament — it’s “the place where the kings of the earth under demonic leadership will wage war on the forces of God at the end of history.” Today, we think of it as a movie starring Ben Affleck … and a general cataclysmic event that precipitates the end of days.

But this concept of a battle between good and evil marking the end of the world is in line with Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, too — the idea that we’ll reach a state of moral decline that looks something like The Hunger Games before the whole world gets destroyed …. so a new world can be created with a blank slate. What this destruction and rebirth looks like varies across traditions, but the concepts are metaphorically very similar.

The word apocalypse also stems from a Christian end-of-world story, although we use it today to be synonymous with a world-ending cataclysmic event. Many Christians believe in a post-apocalyptic Rapture — that is, “the final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology,” which is quite different from how Eastern religions conceptualize the end of the world.

A common thread in eschatology, however, is that the “end” is rarely all that finite.  Sure, some traditions are more pessimistic or optimistic, but there’s usually a next chapter: Heaven, a new world, or a rebirth after a battle between good and evil destroys most life on earth. We bring these hopes and fears to how we view the supposed “prediction” of the Mayan calendar. But there are scholars of Latin American civilizations who believe that the 2012 “end” date was simply the end of a cycle on one calendar — it would be marked by celebration, and another cycle would begin. In other words, the world isn’t ending on December 31, 2012 just because that’s where your calendar ends.

So while December 21, 2012 isn’t doomsday after all (because, hey, we’ve been wrong about this plenty of times before…), the Mayan calendar offers a chance for reflection. Why is it that so many people seem convinced we’ve reached the age of ultimate moral decay? What extreme weather events have transpired recently that make us fear that the end is near? And since the world isn’t ending in the next few weeks, what can we do to make sure we don’t hasten along its demise?

Learn how to insult people like Thaddeus Stevens does in ‘Lincoln’

© KarSol - Fotolia.comThe mid-1800s were a colorful time for the American language, when quick-witted historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain roamed the earth. As American English separated from its mother tongue across the pond, our language seemed to change and grow as rapidly as the nation’s borders were expanding and other languages were making their way onto our shores (it was also a bit saltier back then, much like the pioneers who pushed their way westward).

As a result, it turns out some pretty strange insults – many of which we still use today in one form or another – come from the mid-1800s, particularly around the time of the Civil War. (Unfortunately, some of the most racist terms stem from that time period, too…) But it wasn’t our man Abe who won the dis wars in ‘Lincoln’ – it was Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Republican leader in the House of Representatives under Lincoln, whose wit makes “Your momma” jokes seem like child’s play.

So, with a nod to Tony Kushner’s screenplay for ‘Lincoln,’ here are a few 19th century-style insults that would be worthy of retorts like “Burn!” or “Ooh, no he didn’t!” today:

1.)    You fatuous nincompoop! (21st century version: You smug idiot!)
This is my favorite insult uttered by Thaddeus Stevens in ‘Lincoln’ – it’s spoken with so much vitriol and sarcasm, he doesn’t need to use four-letter words to convey his contempt.

2.)    Why, you ignoble scalawag! (21st century version: You good for nothing low-life!)
Today, we think of a scalawag as a rascal. But the original definition of scalawag (c. 1848) is a white Southerner acting in support of reconstruction after the Civil War, often for private gain.

3.)    Ain’t that a heap of bunkum! (21st century version: What a pile of s@#t!)
We know it as bunk today. But bunkum dates back to 1845, often attributed to a congressman’s claim that an irrelevant speech he gave was only meant for the people of Buncombe, NC.

4.)    Enough of your palaver and carpet-bagging! (21st century version: I’m tired of your corrupt bulls#@t!)
Post-Civil War, carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South for private gain – but history shows that while some were corrupt, others helped rebuild the Southern economy.

5.)    “I do not believe I could learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight.” – Mark Twain on Lilian Aldrich (wife of poet Thomas Bailer Aldrich)
Mark Twain seemed to be friends with the Aldriches in the late 1800s, so it’s unclear what the context of this quote is. But it is clear that Mark Twain was a master of the witty insult.

Of course, if you’re not particular about whether your insults are American or British, you can always build your own 1800s insult using handy cheat-sheets like this one.

The 2012 election was a battle to define the words that define us

© freshidea - Fotolia.comI was out of the country on November 6th this year (don’t worry, I voted by mail), which was an interesting experience. It turns out meeting people who are on the outside looking in at our election madness is a good way to get some perspective. I realized that this election season, we Americans were having a war over words.

Sure, the thick of the campaign season just felt like a cacophonous mess.  But looking back on the whole affair (which we can, now that it’s thankfully 10 days in the past), it seems clear that as a country, we were struggling to define the words that define us. It was, at times, an ugly struggle — but a meaningful one that showed us who we are and what we’re about.  It also proved that while words often evolve with the times to stay relevant in a new social context, some words are simply too powerful to be redefined.

So, lets take a look at three volatile words that, in my mind, were the most hotly contested leading up to this election season:

1.) Marriage: The definition of marriage has been shifting in this country for years now. But this year, it came to a head with marriage equality appearing on the ballot in four states. It was a historic victory for gay rights, with three states endorsing moves to allow gay marriage.  This one’s a clear win for an evolving definition of marriage. Just consider the fact that Merriam-Webster includes “being united to a person of the same sex” in its definition of marriage. Now it’s time for the Oxford English Dictionary to follow suit…

2.) American: Now, this shouldn’t be a difficult word to define. The OED says that an American is a “native or citizen of the United States” (Merriam-Webster agrees…) But for decades, politicians have tried to lay a claim on being more American than the opposition. Candidates must wear American flag lapel pins on TV, lest they be branded as un-American. President Obama saw the worst of this with the extremely disheartening Birther Movement — but it turns out, being white isn’t part of the definition for being American.

3.) Rape: For whatever reason, there were male Republican candidates this election who decided to take it upon themselves to try and redefine what constitutes rape. There was Todd Akin, who tried to come up with a definition for “legitimate rape.” And there was Richard Mourdock, who believes that sometimes, rape is just part of God’s plan (especially when it ends in pregnancy). Sorry, boys — the American electorate has spoken and your edits aren’t making it into the dictionary any time soon…

On the surface, these might seem like “just words” — but as this election has shown, words can be extremely charged and powerful. Thomas Friedman illustrates this eloquently in his op-ed about why he’s pro-life. The word has been co-opted by a religious movement and imbued with political meaning, but the reality is, the vast majority of humans respect life and are simply trying to live a good one themselves. So why all the fuss over words? Well, remember — how we define words defines us as a society.

Why words like lolz, ridic and mwahahaha make it into the Oxford English Dictionary

© artenot - Fotolia.comLast month, the Oxford English Dictionary revealed its latest buzz-inducing list of new words to enter the revered reference guide. This time, words like lolz, hackathon, ridic, and group hug made the cut (see the full list at Oxford Dictionaries Online).

Every time this happens (which is four times a year, FYI), there’s a slew of articles, blog posts and quippy TV pieces that express a mixture of outcry, bafflement and sheer amusement at the latest additions. How could mwahahaha become a real word… in the dictionary?! We tend to think of dictionaries as the end-all and be-all of language. If it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s not a real word… right?

Well, it turns out dictionaries — like language itself — are dynamic and very much alive.  Rather than being rigid and prescriptive texts, they’re a reflection of humans’ relationship with language.  As some words fall out of favor (so long, growlery), others make their way into daily usage (hello, sexting).

In previous years, OMG-worthy entries have included jiggy, bling, woot and <3. We get bent out of shape because we feel these words haven’t yet proven their staying power to enter something as venerated as a dictionary. But nothing compared to the uproar caused last year when cassette tape was ruthlessly slashed to make room for words like retweet. Did this mean that the cassette tape was effectively being erased from our language — and our history?!

Well, no. Casette tape actually got removed from the Concise OED — this is a mini version of the full OED that’s meant to represent the current vocabulary of the English-speaking world.The full Oxford English Dictionary continues to be one of the most respected, comprehensive, and expensive guides to pretty much every word in our language. There, words like casette tape and video jockey continue to live on (and of course, the ’80s continue to live on in our hearts)…

You can also still find these words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, what TIME Magazine called “the hipper and more adaptable young cousin of the venerable OED.” Its role is actually tracking language trends and adding words as they reach a tipping point of daily usage. There are even different editions for U.S. English vs. British & World English. If you’re interested in how words make the cut, you can see the ODO’s infographic explaining the process. A word doesn’t actually enter the “real” OED until after it’s proven itself worthy over a long period of time.

The OED has long been considered the premier dictionary of our language. And while some of the new entries to the online edition seem silly (personally, I don’t think “getting voted off the island” deserves an entry) I respect that they continue to stay on the cutting edge of language. To be fair, other dictionaries like Merriam-Webster also regularly update their word lists (this year they added f-bomb and mash-up, for example). But for word nerds like me, the OED remains the ultimate. For a better understanding of why, I highly recommend Simon Winchester’s book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out you have to be a little loopy to want to create a record of, well, the meaning and history of every word in the English language… ever.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — the Oxford Dictionaries Online is sponsoring a contest for the best 50-word story inspired by the most recent additions (you could win an iPod Touch). That’s right, an iPod. Because while Walkman may have entered the OED in 1986, it got the Concise OED kibosh long ago. Who knew a dictionary could make you feel so old?