Q&A: Decking halls, bobtails and yuletide

Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, we chat to Carol. Oh wait, no, we chat ABOUT carols…

Q: (Carol singing)
A: Oh, wonder who that could be at this time? Sounds a bit like carol singers.

Q: (Carol singing)
A: Okay, um this is awkward. Why are you standing there at our doorstep with a bluetooth speaker playing carols?

Q: Shhhh, I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m here while I ask you this week’s question…
A: You know we print these, right? They’re right here on our blog…

Q: Shhhh. Yes yes, but I have some unrequited questions and it seemed only best to hold up giant cards with them written on them, just like the guy from Love Actually.
A: Who now kills zombies on The Walking Dead.

Q: Yeah, that guy. (Click.) Okay then, music off. What I want to know is actually related to Christmas Carols. I was hoping you could shed some light on some of the wording used in them. None of them make a lot of sense.
A: Sure, and seeing as most were written in the 1800s, they aren’t going to have quite the same vocab as we use today. They are fascinating ‘time capsules’ of the English language though, and–

Q: Just to interrupt, if I had a time capsule, I’d travel into the future – to the year 2015, just like they did in Back to the Future II. I wonder what the year 2015 will REALLY be like. Flying cars… hmmm.
A: It’s 2015 in like, a week. And you’re thinking of a “time machine”, not a time capsule.

Q: Oh yes. Sorry, carry on.
A: Okay, well most carols are a throwback from a time of harking and heralding, dashing and prancing. People thought nothing of running to the window in their ‘kerchief and throwing open the sash. These days they’d probably just tweet “omg crzy noiz at wndw – totes clatter, lol. @santa dat u? #christmaseve #fml #hohoho”

Q: Hashtag funny. I have a neighbour called Carol. And you’re right, she’s always prancing and dashing, she’s also a bit of a vixen, and hey, a little dopey too. Oh wait, that’s dwarves. Anyway, I’m going to hold up these cards with lines from famous carols and you’re going to act as translator. Okay?
A: Sure thing. Actually, you may as well turn that music back on if we’re going to go full Andrew Lincoln.

Q: Ooookay. First one: “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.” Is this like an outdoor deck, summer BBQ Christmas theme?
A: Close, but no electronic cigar. Deck is simply to decorate, and bough is a branch – so they were going all in on the decking that year – must have been a sale on holly.

Q: Yes, I’m still thinking they’re on their way to Mardi Gras, with the next verse about “donning their gay apparel”. And what about, same song, “fa la la la la, la la la la”?
A: That’s where the song writer got lazy.

Q: And what’s a Yule tide? Is it good for surfers? Should we move our towels further up the beach?
A: Well it’s just one word, “Yuletide” – or “Yule time”, and it was a pagan festival from around the 15th century, morphing and merging into Christmas. So we’ve actually got a few different celebrations happening at once, all historically scattered across December or January, but eventually settling on December 25th.

Q: But they were “trolling an ancient Yuletide carol”? Sounds nasty (or like someone reading YouTube comments). 
A: Troll means all sorts of nasty things these days, but back two hundred years ago, it was to sing loud and clear.

Q: Okay, what about “bells on bobtail ring” from Jingle Bells?
A: Well, we’re talking about that one horse that is pulling the open sleigh. No, he’s not named Bob, but his tail has been decoratively tied into a “bob” knot for the occasion (think “bob” haircut but with more horse’s rear end involved) – they probably dressed up specially (a bit like how dressage riders braid horses’ tails) because they heard they were going to be featured in a song that day.

Q: Cattle lowing?
A: They’re mooing in a deep way. Clearly they’re all about that bass, ‘bout that bass, no treble.

Q: Same song. A manger?
A: It’s like a manager, but with less authority to fire people. And more straw. It’s actually a feeding trough for animals, but we have known plenty of managers who have closely resembled mangers though.

Q: Verily?
A: It means truly.

Q: Tidings of great joy? Not “timings” surely. 
A: No, in this case, tidings means “news” or “information”.

Q: Okay, what about “This year to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special”
A: That’s from Wham’s “Last Christmas” and it means that last Christmas George Michael (who wrote and produced the song) expressed love for another, but on Boxing Day, that person regifted it before heading off to the mall for up to 75% off bullet blenders. So this year, he's going to be better at choosing.

Q: I think George Michael was thinking about donning gay apparel when he wrote that.
A: Quite possibly. So, are we done?

Q: One more, and I cheated – it’s not a Christmas carol, but it is FROM A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. What does “Bah, Humbug!” mean?
A: First, a “humbug” is like a fraud or something untrustworthy. And, yes, we mainly associate it with Ebenezer Scrooge. People can say it to someone – calling them a fraud – or can be referring to Christmas as the “humbug”. Its use has expanded beyond Christmas to generally mean your rejection of something.

Q: Isn’t a humbug also a type of sweet?
A: Yes, so technically you could cry out “Bah, humbug!” if you got that in your Christmas pudding.

Q: And on that cherry note (see what I did there?), a happy Christmas to all.
A: And to all, a good night.

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