Bells on what tails ring? Holiday lyrics we love to butcher

© Guido Vrola - Fotolia.comEvery holiday season, we resurrect the songs we learned as kids — and continue to sing them like 8-year-olds, guessing at lyrics we never really understood in the first place. (Just watch Amy Poehler and Billy Eichner trying to get people to sing Christmas carols with them on the streets of New York…)

This hilarious and bizarrely fascinating practice of substituting words for what we think we’re hearing in a song (i.e. did he say Parson Brown or pants of brown?) has an equally wonderful name — a mondegreen.  A good example of a holiday mondegreen is ‘Olive, the Other Reindeer,’ a book and movie that sprung from the line in ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ that starts, “All of the other reindeer…”  You get the picture.

Last year, I dug into a few lyrical questions that raise eyebrows every time Christmas rolls around: Who the hell is Parson Brown is in ‘Winter Wonderland’? What exactly are good tidings in ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’?  Why do we deck the halls/don gay apparel/troll the yuletide carol?  What part of speech is is ‘Jingle Bells’?

This year, I add a few more to the list to help raise our collective Christmas carol IQs:

1.) The 12 Days of Christmas: There’s no such thing as a calling bird.
I used to pride myself in knowing the song pretty well, until I found out I was totally butchering the fourth day of Christmas — you know, “Four calling birds,” right? Well, unless you’re talking about a penguin on an iPhone, there’s no such thing as a calling bird.

But a colly bird, on the other hand, is a blackbird — which fits a whole lot better with the three french hens, two turtle doves, and that good old partridge. I felt a little better knowing I wasn’t alone on this — NBC recently ranked this the #1 most misheard holiday song.

2.) Jingle Bells: Bells on what tails ring?
Perhaps one of the greatest debates around ‘Jingle Bells’ is what part of speech it is — who, if anyone, is jingling those bells? But even the lyrics, which seem fairly simple at first, have one little line that tends to trip people up: “Bells on bobtail ring.”

It turns out there are an inconsequential number of people asking the Internet what exactly that means. Well, in the 1800s, there was a practice of cutting horses’ tails short (which has since been deemed cruel). This shortened tail was known as a bobtail. There you go.

3.) Here We Come A-Wassailing: Apparently, this song isn’t about waffles.
There’s a reason why the title of this song has changed over the years to ‘Here We Go A-Caroling’ — nobody seems to know what wassailing (or wasselling) is anymore.  As a kid, I heard this as “Here we go a waffling,” imagining that maybe the song came from Belgium.

It turns out wassailing actually sounds like a way better version of caroling, because it involves drinking wassail (a hot mulled cider). FYI, the term wassailing translates to “be in good health” and it stems from a tradition of promoting a good harvest for the coming year.

So there you have it. More fun holiday song factoids for you to bust out around the open-fire. Happy holidays!

On the origins of ‘assload’ and ‘buttload’

© Eric Isselée - Fotolia.comIn America, we like big things — big cars, big beverages, and big stores that like to stay open on Thanksgiving so people can buy big piles of big stuff. (Fun fact: One of my top tourist stops when friends and family visit from abroad is Costco. Blows their minds every time…)

We’re so into the idea of “more is more” that we’ve built up a delightfully colorful vocabulary around expressing “an extremely large quantity of something.” Think about it — in our daily speech, we’re used to saying things like “an insane amount” or “a ridiculous quantity.” And when the amount of something really blows our minds, we’ve got hella, ginormous, crapload, shit-ton, and various other words of similar flavors.

It all started with a donkey
I started wondering how the excrement-inspired phrases came to be, seeing as a crap isn’t exactly a specific unit of measurement.  What is a crapload, and why do we think that’s a lot?  Well, my theory is that it all started with a donkey.

Once upon a time, an ass’s load was, well, how much a donkey could carry. The term was used in the Bible (according to this annotated Bible from 1832, an ass’s load was almost equivalent to 8 bushels) and it also appeared in one of Aesop’s fables and in arithmetic books through the 1800s. It seems the term started falling out of favor when people stopped using donkeys to carry things and as units of measurement became more exact.

Today, we think of assload as a vulgar American slang term that means “a lot.” But just for the record, next time someone says they have an assload of something, you know they mean roughly 8 bushels… Naturally, I assumed that words like  buttload evolved from assload over time — but surprisingly, I was wrong.

A buttload = 491 liters
As I started digging into the word buttload, I was surprised to find that a “butt” is an actual unit of measurement.  It’s an outdated term referring to a large cask used for liquids (esp. beer, wine, or water) or a specific unit of liquid measurement equivalent to 108 imperial gallons, or 491 liters. So yes, a buttload is a whole lot of liquid and it’s very specific.

From words like assload and buttload, it seems we applied our trademark American creativity and fashioned words like shitload, crapton, and all the other fabulously filthy words that end with -load or -ton to express our awe at having a whole lot of stuff.

So with that, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving filled with an assload of food, family and reflection.

5 common expressions you’re probably screwing up

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English is a colorful language. We have idioms and puns and delightful compound words like shitstorm, bushwhack and blockhead. You would think with this jackpot of expressions, we’d never have trouble saying precisely what we mean.

But of course, being imperfect humans, we’re masterful at taking a perfectly meaningful expression and turning into something that makes no sense at all. To be fair, I’m guilty of this too — and there’s nothing worse than a fellow editor friend calling you out on your improper usage of allude vs. elude.  How dreadful!

So, to spare you from being pilloried by a grammar snob, here are five expressions that are commonly misused. Be prepared for people to correct you for using the correct expression — but you can rest easy knowing that if it leads to a Google war to see who’s right, you’re sure to win some gloating points.

1.) Pass muster (NOT pass mustard)
So, you finished a project. You’ve worked hard on it.  But you’re nervous.  Will it make the grade?  Will it… pass muster?  As much as I’d love the expression to be “pass mustard” (since I love a nice pungent mustard), that just isn’t the case.

I know what you’re thinking … isn’t there an expression about mustard? Yes, there is — and that one’s about cutting the mustard. There are various theories on the origins of this expression, but it’s possible it evolved from people misusing the phrase “to pass muster.”

2.) Home in (NOT hone in)
I know this sounds crazy.  But this one is so commonly misused that the original expression sounds incorrect.  The verb “home” means to be guided towards a target or to move towards a goal (like homing pigeons). The verb “hone” means to sharpen or perfect.

Because “hone in” is used so frequently in North America (“home in” is more common elsewhere), some dictionaries even give it its own entry. And whether “hone in” is actually wrong is certainly up for debate, as illustrated in this New Yorker piece from last year.

3.) All intents and purposes (NOT all intensive purposes)
I’m pretty sure I misused this for years. But if you think about what the expression is actually trying to convey, it becomes pretty clear. We’re trying to say, “in every practical sense”: For all intents and purposes, panda bears are struggling to survive in the wild. 

But “intensive” means either “concentrated on a single area or short time” or “giving force or emphasis. To make the phrase correct, you’d have to put it in a different context:
Ex: She approached the last month of studying for the LSAT with intensive purpose.

4.) Nip it in the bud (NOT nip it in the butt)
Part of me prefers the misused version of this phrase.  But alas, if correct English is to prevail, the technical expression is “nip it in the bud.” You don’t want those pesky wildflowers to grow? Cut them off at the buds instead of waiting for them to flower.

Nipping someone in the butt is what a poorly trained dog would do. But if you’re trying to say that you want to put an end to something pernicious before it has a chance to grow too big, then “nip it in the bud” is your best friend.

5.) Whet your appetite (NOT wet your appetite)
The reason why people misuse this phrase so often is that we simply don’t whet things the way we used to. To whet something means to sharpen or stimulate it. Have dull knives or scissors? In the old days, you’d pull out your whetting stone to take care of them.

To wet your appetite means to pour liquid on it … or pee on it … which would presumably mean that you’ve dampened it. And that’s the opposite of what it means to whet your appetite — that is, to stimulate it so you’re ready to indulge.

Sure, there are plenty more of these phrases to go around. But these are the ones I find the most egregious (maybe because I’ve been guilty of misusing them myself). And hey, if you’re happy using your expressions however you damn well please, go right ahead — after all, I couldn’t care less.

Scullion! Rampalian! Fustilarian! Insults from Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dis-master

© heywoody - Fotolia.comA good insult is a thing of beauty. Nobody understood this better than William Shakespeare, whose biting wit was so memorable, it continues to shape how remember historical figures like Richard III — the short-lived King of England who reigned from 1483 to 1485.

Just a few weeks ago, the remains of Richard III were dug up under a parking lot in Leicester, England and identified using some pretty fancy DNA-based technology. The discovery has reignited the debate over who Richard III truly was — was he a villain, victim or tragic hero?

Some scholars say Richard III was the victim of a smear campaign — anti-Plantagenet propaganda commissioned by the Tudor Dynasty and perpetuated during their 120-year reign after Richard III’s death. Whether Shakespeare intended to portray Richard III as a villain or parody this overwrought propaganda is open to debate. But there’s no doubt that his play is a major factor in how we view Richard III today.

In honor of this major historical and literary discovery, we look at some of Shakespeare’s most brilliant insults — from Richard III as well as some of his other most beloved works:

1. Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog! Thou poisonous bunch-back’d toad!
Ouch. Your mama jokes have nothing on these insults used to describe Richard III, whose scoliosis gave him a hunchback and who was portrayed as being corrupt and vile.

2. Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!
This fine line comes from Henry IV, and boy is it a doozy. It basically means, “Get away from me, you menial servant! You scamp! You low-life stinkard!” Let that one sink in.

3. I do repent the tedious minutes I with you have spent.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically the world’s greatest insult factory. Remember that repenting in Elizabethan times meant you were really darn sorry you did something.

4. No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
Okay, Dromio of Syracuse, we get it … she’s a little rotund. This winner from the Comedy of Errors is a reminder of what not to say to or about, well, pretty much any woman ever.

5. [Thou art] a knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave.
That’s only half of what the Earl of Kent says to Oswald in King Lear. Well, I guess don’t piss off the Earl of Kent. Let’s just say this quote speaks for itself, broken meats and all…

And with that, I leave you to create your own Shakespearean insults — because they’re so much better than any four-letter word. After all, being a master of witty insults is likely to make you a more memorable person. From Shakespeare to Thaddeus Stevens to Mark Twain, our favorite wordsmiths knew how to tell people off in style.

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.