10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

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Many of us sing Christmas songs without giving a second thought to the lyrics. But for those who are paying attention, there are some pretty ancient terms mixed in with all of the Fa-La-La-La-La-ing. Here are the meanings of 10 of them, perfect for impressing your friends and family as you gather ’round the piano—assuming anyone actually does 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 tail—a tail cut short, or a tail gathered up and tied in a knot, which you sometimes see in dressage events these days.

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.”

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In today’s lingo, this phrase gives us visions of mean people on the internet, ready to launch anonymous attacks on beloved Christmas songs. But in the 1800s, the word was often used with one of its now-little-known meanings: 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 morning prayers of the Anglican church. Although the definition of rime is actually a thin coating of ice, 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."

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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.”

Parson can be a word for a member of the clergy, especially a Protestant pastor.

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.”

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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.

A version of this piece originally ran in 2010.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Prices subject to change.

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14 Facts About International Talk Like A Pirate Day

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iStock

Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was originally conceived of on D-Day.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. September 19th also happens to be the birthday of the ex-wife of the holiday's co-creator.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is largely responsible for popularizing the holiday.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. Real pirates spoke in a wide variety of dialects.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. Actor Robert Newton is hailed as the "patron saint" of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. John Baur's family was featured on a pirate-themed episode of Wife Swap.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. John Baur was also on Jeopardy!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has become a cornerstone of the Pastafarian movement.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A Florida mayor once ignited a local controversy for making an official Talk Like a Pirate Day proclamation.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. Day of the Ninja was created in response to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. Astronauts once celebrated Talk Like a Pirate Day aboard the International Space Station.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. President Obama once celebrated with a costumed buccaneer in the Oval Office.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A congressman later used the holiday to slam President Obama's tax plan.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. It's an official holiday in the state of Michigan.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant International Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

This story originally ran in 2013.