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The Quick 10: 10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

Many of us – me included – sing Christmas songs without giving a second thought to the lyrics. If you’re paying attention, though, there are some pretty ancient terms mixed in with all of the Fa-La-La-La-La-ing. Here’s the meaning of 10 of them – feel free to impress your friends and family with trivia as you gather ‘round the piano to sing this year (do people really do that?).

1. “Bells on bobtail,” from “Jingle Bells.” This is sometimes misheard as “Bells on Bob’s tail” or “Bells on Bobtail,” as if Bob or Bobtail is the name of the horse. But bobtail actually refers to the style of the horse’s tails – a tail cut short or a tail gathered up and tied in a knot, which you sometimes see in dressage events these days. (Somewhat related: this awesome Toothpaste for Dinner comic.)
2. “There we got upsot,” also from “Jingle Bells. This is in one of the often-ignored verses, but the full lyric goes, “”The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot, we ran into a drifted bank, and there we got upsot.” According to Minnesota Public Radio, it means “upset” or “overturned,” as you can probably guess from the lyrics. Judging by its use in other poems and songs of the era, it can also mean “upset” in the emotional sense.

3. “Troll the ancient yuletide carol,” from “Deck the Halls.” In today’s lingo, this phrase gives us visions of mean people on the Internet, lurking on blogs getting ready to launch anonymous and ludicrous attacks on beloved Christmas songs. But in 1800s, the word was often meant with one of its now-little-known usages: to sing loudly and clearly.

4. “Pray you, dutifully prime your matin chime, ye ringers; May you beautifully rime your evetime song, ye singers,” from “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” “Matin” refers to the early part of the morning, so matin chime are bells played in the morning. Although the definition of “rime” is actually a thin coating of ice, I suspect that it may just be an old, alternate spelling of “rhyme.”

5. “Still through the cloven skies they come,” from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” If you’re like me, your first thought goes to “cloven hooves” and you wonder what that has to do with the birth of Jesus. The reason they’re called cloven hooves is because cloven means split or parted – the song is referring to the parting of the clouds in the skies for angels to come down and sing.

6. “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,” from “The Holly and the Ivy.” “Gall” means rancor or bitterness of spirit, but it also means bile. I suppose bile doesn’t often taste good.
7. “How are thy leaves so verdant!” from “O Christmas Tree.” “Verdant” simply means green.

8. “Then pretend that he is Parson Brown” from “Winter Wonderland.” I’m including this one because it always baffled me as a kid – I had never heard of a minister referred to as a “Parson.” I thought perhaps Parson was an old-timey name. If you are as naïve as I was, there you go – “Parson” can be a word for a pastor in a non-Roman Catholic church (which is what I am, which is probably why I had never heard the word as a youngster).

9. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes,” from “Away in a Manger.” This is often misheard as “the cattle are lonely.” If you haven’t grown up in cattle country, you might not know this, but lowing is the deep, low sounds made by cattle. When a cow goes “moo,” it’s lowing.

10. “More rapid than eagles his coursers they came” and “So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,” from “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is technically not a song, but I’m including it anyway. “Courser” is another word for a fast horse, and the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (which has been much disputed over the years) uses it to refer to reindeer as well.

Are there any lyrics that have always left you puzzled? Maybe we can figure them out together..


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