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Thursday, December 24, 2009


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I've also been confused. I heard it in the car during a drive today and wondered about it too.

My guess was that the "Noel" was directed at them.

Merry happy

Pfffft. The answer is yes, of course. No, I mean no... Wait, can I change my answer?

Oh, never mind. I don't know what 'impecunious' means anyways. But it is fun to say. Say it with me; "im-pe-cun-i-ous."

Merry Happy!

I've sometimes noticed the weirdness of those lines too, John. But you used "gift" as a verb! No wonder the English language is declining. Orwell is spinning in his grave.

Have a Happy Hanukkwanzamassolstice.

According to Wikipedia, the hymn has Cornish origins and most likely dates to the 18th century. Cornish as a language was almost completely wiped out by anglicization, but remnants of it remained in the regional argot and folk songs. My best guess is the ambiguity and odd elisions are the product of a Celtic influence. My speculation is that "was to certain" should be construed as "witnessed by" the shepherds and "Angels did say" should be construed as "[The First Noel] was proclaimed by Angels". I can't back that up.

Wikipedia. Pah. (They don't even spell it right: should be 'Wikipædia'. Probably drive on the wrong side of the road, too.)

Now, flipping through real sheets of paper, magnifying glass to hand, in my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary I find an entry for 'certain' as a transitive verb, noting it as obsolete and rare, and meaning 'To make certain; to certify'. An early use of this word, dated 1523, is 'He certeyned them how he wolde ryde forthe.'

Going on to 'certify', a meaning listed is 'To make (a person) certain or sure (of a matter); to assure, inform certainly; to give (a person) legal or formal attestation (of)'.

So, it seems that 'was to certain poor shepherds' means something along the lines of 'was to make sure the shepherds got the Word.' Uses of the word in this sense date back to 1340.

So there you go. Happy Christmas!

I've always favored the verb hypothesis. There's actually a surprising amount of discussion about this out there, and this person pointed out that the gospel says the shepherds were totally freaking out, so certain=reassure makes sense. And if the OED is happy with that then so am I.

But you used "gift" as a verb!

Haven't you heard? It's the big new thing. Pop culture sure has impacted our language, hasn't it?

Actually, "gift" as a verb is quite old. That's why language neurotics must fight against it to the death! Never surrender, never give up!

I'm not sure it's necessary to suppose that the shepherds were freaking out -- but that's gods for you, always cleaning up a problem that wouldn't have existed but for them. First send down some angels to scare the shit out of you, then say "Fear not!" From what NomadUK writes, "certain" as a verb might also mean to inform, and that fits the context better.

Speaking of which, I just finished reading Dennis Baron's book "Declining Grammar, and other essays on English Vocabulary." Very informative and entertaining. It's an old book, published in 1989, but I can see I should read more of his stuff. He also has a blog Web of Language, not too active but worth a look now and then.

Now, flipping through real sheets of paper, magnifying glass to hand, in my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary...

I refuse to let book-jealousy undermine my appreciation of the detective work and a solution to the puzzle. I am not resentful. No indeed.

Well, maybe just a little.

Well, maybe just a little.

How about we make it a lot: I got it as a 'free' bonus, when I joined some book club years ago.

Sorry, just had to twist the knife.

Needless to say I don't begrudge you. I simply take comfort in knowing that you require a magnifying glass. There'll be no cyclops jokes from me either.

Better late than never, my solstice gift to you:


I simply take comfort in knowing that you require a magnifying glass.

You heartless bastard, you.

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