Mind your language

The curious language of Christmas carols

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

I could never understand as a little girl why we sang: ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.’ I knew what a manger was, and I knew that people set up cribs at home and in churches with the Child Jesus in the manger and the animals, shepherds and all the trimmings.

It turns out that I was right to be puzzled, for crib has the primary meaning of ‘a manger’, not ‘a baby’s cradle’. It’s a good old English word. Richard Rolle wrote in the 14th century of Jesus ‘born and laid in a crib between an ox and an ass’. The ox and the ass do not come from the Gospels, but from the prophetic words of Isaiah (1:3): ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib,’ as it’s translated in the Authorised Version.

So the carol would be better as: ‘Away in a manger, a crib for a bed.’ Who was to blame for the silly version is hard to tell. The carol in its earliest known published form, in the magazine The Myrtle for May 1884, came with the quite false assurance that Martin Luther ‘composed the following hymn for his children; and it is still sung by many German mothers to their little ones’.

It’s funny that the various other meanings of crib all derive from the word meaning ‘a manger’. It can be a hovel, ‘a smoky crib’ in Henry IV Part 2. In thieves’ slang it was a place to crack or burgle. In American slang it was a saloon or low dive, even a brothel. In Cornwall and Australia it was a packed lunch. From early times it meant a basket, and thus an apparatus for draining salt in salt-making, or for catching salmon. It could be a lining for a mine or an underwater framework acting as a dam. Crib means the discarded cards that give the game of cribbage its name. It is, or was, the illicit translation allowing schoolchildren to understand their given classical text. Since we have a great capacity for ignoring unintended meanings of words, none of these senses nudges the semantic elbow-room of the crib in the carol.

A firmer grasp of cattle-shed terminology was shown by Fanny Alexander in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. It appeared in 1848 in her Hymns for Little Children, along with ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’. (That Easter hymn made children wonder why a green hill ought to have a city wall in the first place to justify the remark that it was ‘without a city wall’.)


Mrs Alexander expected Little Children to have a better knowledge of obsolete vocabulary. Without first meant ‘outside’, and was used in that sense by good King Alfred in his translation of Orosius, a historian born in the rainier part of Iberia who became a student of St Augustine of Hippo. The meaning with absence of did not develop until about 1200, when it was used by the spelling reformer Orrm, who mentioned bread withth utenn berrme — without yeast. (Double letters were important to Orrm.)

When writing her book of hymns, the author was still Miss Humphreys, for she married William Alexander only later in 1848. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography rather oddly refers to her as ‘Cecil’, as though she were a family friend. But I think those who knew her well called her Fanny.

Mrs Alexander rightly says in her hymn or carol that Jesus had a ‘manger for his bed’ and ‘his cradle was a stall’. You might think that strictly a stall is where cattle stand, but the word has for centuries also meant ‘a manger’. The mid-15th-century Promptorium parvulorum, written for children, like Mrs Alexander’s Hymns, gives the Latin for ‘stall’ as presepe.

Mrs Alexander indulged in archaism when it suited her metre. ‘And He feeleth for our sadness, / And He shareth in our gladness,’ is not an ineffectual couplet, but the —eth is obviously deployed to make extra syllables. Otherwise, the carol is notable for its fondness for the word lowly, using it four times, twice of the cattle shed or stable, once of the folk with whom Jesus shared his daily life and once of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To the hard-boiled Little Children at whom the work was directed, it may have occurred, as it did to me, to wonder why in heaven Jesus’s children ‘all in white shall wait around’. What were they waiting around for? But it would be anachronistic to expect Mrs Alexander to have been aware of any ambiguity. The phrasal verb wait around, like hang about, had not yet come into use. Wait around in that sense was at first American. In 1895, for example, it was employed by Jesse Lynch Williams (who in 1918 was to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama) in a book about journalists, some of whom are waiting around in the office because it is raining. Mrs Alexander simply uses around as an adverb.

‘Around the throne of God a band / Of bright and glorious angels stand,’ a more voluminous hymnodist than Mrs Alexander wrote in his own Hymns for Children (1842). This was John Mason Neale, who in the same year was ordained, married and consigned to Madeira to recover from consumption, which did nothing to diminish an astonishing outpouring of translations and original writing for the next 20 years. His angels around God’s throne come perhaps from the book of Revelation (7:11).

Even more baffling to a child (me) was the syntax of quite a jolly carol that we sang at school. ‘The first Nowell the angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.’ Were the angels saying that the first Nowell, whatever that was, was somehow towards certain poor shepherds. Or was it that the angels simply did say ‘Nowell’ for the first time? The latter is the case, I now know.

Nowell comes from the Latin natalis, though you’d hardly think so. By the time the French had mangled it into nouel in the 13th century, they were happily using it as an interjection, which the English picked up. Chaucer uses it thus, and the contemporary author of that really rather good Christmas tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, uses it to mean Christmas itself. When Jesus was born, the angels did not literally say Nowell to anyone, but one can see what the carol intends. As a girl of seven I could not see, and was unable to formulate my ignorance in order to ask.

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Show comments
  • On the other hand “But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” is a heretical claim, denying that Jesus was fully Man.

    • Bosun Higgs

      It doesn’t mean that He never cried, merely that he was quiet at that moment.

      • pauldanon

        Or that, being without original sin, he never cried.

      • Swanky

        No, but He never laughed, did he — or at least we are never told. But Socrates laughed. I think the old Greek would have been better company.

        • Ivan Ewan

          Socrates strongly advocated a hypothetical totalitarian state which regarded the lives of men as disposable cogs in a pointless machine and which eliminated any culture that did not worship such a state… and which was to be ruled by ‘philosopher kings’ such as himself.

          …what a wonderful person. :[

          • Swanky

            I think that’s a major misunderstanding of Plato’s Republic, which was meant to show exactly the opposite. So cheer up!

            P. S. Philosophers may indeed be best fit to rule wisely — but they never want the job. Yet another reason why your horror is unfounded.

          • Ivan Ewan

            I have of course heard of the idea that Plato was using Socrates to advocate a totalitarian utopia in order to covertly ridicule the idea.

            But if Socrates was meant to parody the idea of utopia, why did he launch into a lengthy explanation of how to make it work just as a roundabout way of trying to explain the meaning and purpose of ‘justice’? Nobody else in the exchange ever mentioned politics until Socrates started to pile up the utopia idea in the biggest and wobbliest Socratic argument ever devised. Even the Sophist in the exchange, was written in to present a straw man opposition to Socrates’ ideas, serving only to prop them up through weak opposition.

            On the other hand, I am not very familiar with the ancient Greek sense of humour. Were they very much into insane troll logic?

          • Swanky

            I think it’s something one needs to stick with. The people that claim Plato is easily understood or that read him once or twice are not to be trusted. The reader has to ‘supply’ parts of the argument or at least join the dots, while at the same time refraining from ‘imposing on the text’. It’s a huge challenge, and most readers of philosophy fail it to a greater or lesser extent.

          • Ivan Ewan

            What you say boils down to this: if you do not take The Republic as deliberate irony, then you have by definition failed to understand it.

            I have read The Republic cover to cover. At every page I considered the argument and the counterargument. Socrates establishes a new hypothesis, it is trialled with examples and interrogation, and either rejected for a new hypothesis or accepted as the launching ground of the next hypothesis.

            The definitive Socratic argument. Assuming Socrates is Plato’s puppet, so are the other characters. The most important secondary character is the Sophist. It is his job to find holes in Socrates’ ideas so that a sound Socratic argument can be had.

            What we find is that all of the Sophist’s arguments are purely technical. From a Socratic viewpoint, this is acceptable. Every technical counterargument adequately covered technical issues presented, so Plato was not really handicapping the opposition. Each counterargument is directed toward each individual layer of reasoning rather than overall criticisms of the gestalt. That too is completely in line with the Socratic method.

            A correctly implemented Socratic argument, for which the conclusions are so contrary to instinctive morality, human nature and even the nature of nature itself that one must come to a choice:

            1) Plato is honestly advocating something so reprehensible that his name stands in infamy – or
            2) Plato is having us on in some way.

            Assuming 2, what is the punch line? You assume, because the subject of the treatise is the idea of perfect justice in a totalitarian utopia, that Plato is satirising utopian ideas.

            But as I said before, the reasoning to arrive at what the ideal state looks like is 100% sound Socratic argument. It’s not so much utopia that is called into question by the Socratic method. It is the Socratic method which is called into question by this utopia!

            I contend that if The Republic is a work of satire, it is actually satirising Socrates. It would signify that Plato no longer believes in the Socratic method, and The Republic is his argument ad absurdum.

            What evidence would vindicate this idea?

            Simple. Since The Republic, did Plato ever seriously adopt the Socratic method again for anything of substance?

          • Swanky

            Hello Ivan. If you look at this PDF — the interpretative essay by the late Allan Bloom comes at the end — I think you’ll find a valuable clarification of what the whole thing is about.
            http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

          • Ivan Ewan

            There was no essay at the end. Only pages and pages of footnotes. Life just seems too short to dig through incredibly long PDFs looking for your opinion; I only hope that the procurement of 500-page documents isn’t your most common method of persuasion.

          • Swanky

            Now Ivan, did you look? The person that sent me this assures me that there is an interpretive essay at the end, on the order of 80 or so pages. In any case, I am not trying to persuade you of my opinion, if such it is; I am simply trying to help. Do read Allan Bloom and Thomas Pangle, among others, on the ancients. (And Jan Blits on the political Shakespeare plays!)

          • Ivan Ewan

            You want me to read and agree with a third-hand eighty page opinion that you haven’t even read or looked at yourself? One with all the footnotes in an appendix for Pete’s sake. Yes I did look, Mister Swanky.

            And it’s not because you want to persuade me – it’s for my own good. After all, it’s beyond question that my interpretation of Plato is wrong. Well golly, I thought you sounded patronising and condescending before, but this takes the biscuit. I think this intolerably one-way-traffic conversation had better come to an end.

          • Swanky

            I agree entirely. You’ll never understand anything if you go around with this sort of chip on your shoulder. A thanks was in order, not this.

        • Emilia

          ‘Jesus Wept’, though.

    • Emilia

      I detested ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ because it went on about how little Jesus was ‘our childhood’s pattern’ and how perfect he was. This was just another line which proved that he wasn’t ordinary at all.

  • Latimer Alder

    ‘Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’

    WTF?

  • Bosun Higgs

    It’s a rather clumsy translation of ‘gestant puellae viscera’ which means ‘born of a maiden’s womb’.

    • Latimer Alder

      A likely story!

      I blame that Joseph geezer myself. Having his evil way with her and blaming it on Gabriel…who has conveniently disappeared. Unconvincing.

      • Bosun Higgs

        Al really important things are unlikely.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Don’t forget role of the handsome Roman soldier billeted down the street.

    • Swanky

      Where is the maiden in those words? I see something about a boy/child, something about gestation, and something about — ugh — viscera. No maiden, though.

      • Alex

        “Puella” is Latin for young girl, by extension maiden. As for using “viscera” (guts) to mean womb, we still use that euphemism every time a child speaks of his younger sibling in Mummy’s “tummy”.

        • Swanky

          That’s a very extended extension, if I may say so. And I don’t take my bearings by what the savage innocents of our race call things. The tummy is for digesting food, not for creating human beings. Merry Christmas!

          • Alex

            Well, I’m afraid the massed ranks of language users past and present, English or Roman, have other ideas. Isn’t it fascinating how the meanings of words shift and yet we find similar parallels across time and cultures. Merry Christmas!

          • Swanky

            Yes, ‘recipe’ has an interesting history — list of goods, but for difference purposes as the centuries went on. I believe it started as a receipt for goods received, then it became a list of medical ingredients, then it became a cooking instruction. Then you get mild turnarounds such as ‘fairly’, which used to mean ‘utterly’ instead of ‘somewhat’ (and is perhaps retained in the expression ‘fair worn out’). Then you get the complete change of ‘vulnerable’, which, as used by Thomas Hobbes, meant ‘obnoxious’.

          • Chris Morriss

            While we are on the changing meaning of words, don’t get me on to the US use of the would ‘momentarily’! If a British pilot made the announcement that “We will be landing momentarily”, then it would mean that the aircraft would land on the runway and after a very short time period, take off again!

          • Swanky

            I haven’t heard that one so used. I can believe it, though. Bear in mind that Americans like really short words and abbreviations (e.g. OK) but they also like ornamentation and verbal ostentation. Hence ‘methodology’ where ‘method’ would do, etc.

          • Damaris Tighe

            My favourite (horror of horrors) is ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’. I know there are others but I’m in a post-Christmas befuddlement.

          • Swanky

            Oh yes, that’s a good one! Especially since they actually mean different things!

          • Chris Morriss

            Reading my comment again, perhaps I’ve not been completely clear. I have heard a (automated recording) of a cabin announcement saying the above, but meaning what I assume is the modern US usage, where it meant “We will be landing in a few minutes”.

          • Damaris Tighe

            Or the American use of the word ‘presently’ meaning ‘right now’ but which used to mean in English English (strangely) ‘in a while’.

        • Chris Morriss

          But that’s the problem isn’t it? Puella or the Hebrew word ‘Almah’ both mean a young, unwed girl. Although virginity may be assumed, it isn’t necessary for the word to be used. Hence centuries of confusion about whether Mary was a virgin or not.

          • Swanky

            …especially since she was in fact married!

  • Shorne

    There’s a Parish in Canterbury called Thanington Without so the use of the word in this context isn’t wholly unknown.

    • Alex

      The same sense evolution has occurred for its replacement, “outside”: people often write “outside of” to mean “excluding”. I find it a little ugly, stylistically speaking.

      “Without” in the locative sense still enjoys occasional use in copy, especially when contrasting with “within”.

  • Dodgy Geezer
    • Latimer Alder

      Yep. I bet her Pop was furious too.

  • trace9

    There was a Kim of Korea
    Whom we wanted to Disappear
    So we Outed his Net
    So that he’d get
    A Great Big Flea in his Ear..

    Not a bad start – but a start, Only..
    .

    • Swanky

      ‘So that he would get’ —
      You need an extra syllable for the metre.

  • Swanky

    Having read the whole thing, I’m still not sure what manger means. Is it first and foremost a shed for keeping animals, and secondarily a stall? And is it only by association that it could also be a crib like those children sleep in? What would an animal do with a crib? Count me baffled.

    Regarding S.G. & T. G. K.: a wonderful work that acquainted me with the delightful spelling of ‘icicles’ as ‘ice ickles’, if I remember right. Love the thought of ‘ickles’ made of ice!

    • Alex

      A manger is what farm animals eat out of (hence the name). It is more
      usually called a trough. As far as I can see there is no technical
      difference between the two, though we are more likely to call a raised
      wooden trough in a stable with hay in a manger and a low stone trough
      outdoors with water or swill in a trough. This is probably due to the
      influence of the Nativity scene itself.

      The article is poorly researched on “crib”: originally meaning “manger”, it has been used in the sense of the modern “cradle” since 1640, precisely due to the Nativity story. For the “no crib for a bed” line, written in the
      nineteenth century, the author probably didn’t know the original meaning
      of “crib”, and just thought of it as a synonym for “cradle”, as
      Americans (and you, and me until I just read around it) still do.

      • Swanky

        Thank you very much, very interesting. ‘Manger’ pronounced as French: ah, now I get it!

        I suppose that ‘away in a trough, no human bed for a bed’ makes more sense but doesn’t sound as poetic! Also, because of the nativity scene, one imagines not just a trough but a building: a manger as stable, shed, or whatever. A larger place. So: away in an animal dwelling, no proper bed for a bed. Whereas ‘manger’ and ‘crib’, if they are really two words for the same thing (which you say they were not, by the mid-17th century), would be telling us about the same thing and the same thing. Again, we look for patterns that make sense. Within the drawing room, the fire; within the bedroom, the bed. So clearly ‘the manger’ would have to be something more than the precise cradle/basket Jesus slept in.

        • Alex

          I don’t see that personally, I’ve never heard of the word “manger” being extended to mean the entire stable, even in connotation. You do certainly imagine a manger (rather than a trough) as being inside a stable due to the Nativity though.

          To be clear, the point is that “crib” did originally mean “manger”, but had long come to mean “cradle” (human bed) by 1884, when the carol was written. My contention is that the article is wrong and the carol’s author was unaware that the original meaning of “crib” was “manger”. So her line means, “Away in a trough, no cradle for a bed”.

          Admittedly it still is sort of gibberish: a cradle basically IS a bed, and I don’t really see how the baby Jesus can be “away” in a manger. I guess it’s supposed to mean “away in the land of sleep”.

          • Bosun Higgs

            ‘Away’ from the family home in Nazareth, perhaps.

          • Swanky

            Yeessss… Not one of the great lyrics of history, I agree. But carols are immensely helped out by the fact that you, I, and the author of the article have given more attention to these lines than probably anyone in the past 130 years!

            So what we end up with is ‘away [somewhere] in a trough, no baby’s bed for a bed’ — since only babies sleep in cradles.

            p. s. My instinctive take on ‘away’ is that it meant ‘away in Bethlehem’, as most singers of the carol won’t have been anywhere near the Middle East!

          • Chris Morriss

            The old farming speech in my county of Derbyshire always used manger for the simple wooden V-shaped containers for straw, that the animals could feed from whilst in a stable or barn at night. I have never heard the traditional semi-circular profile iron trough called a manger.

          • Alex

            I also live in the countryside and that’s always been my intuition too. I would guess originally trough was Old English and manger French, covering basically the same ground, and over time the redundant synonyms were repurposed to describe different types of receptacle. I get the impression that before “manger”, “crib” might have been the go-to word for an indoor container with hay, if there was a distinction.

  • thomasaikenhead

    “(That Easter hymn made children wonder why a green hill ought to have a city wall in the first place to justify the remark that it was ‘without a city wall’.)”

    Dot, I think that you might find that in this instance ‘without’ means outside rather than lacking?

    By all means feel free to write an article mocking the language used in Christmas carols if it amuses you but surely you should do your readers the kindness of conducting even the most basic research about the words that you use and what they actually mean?

    • Swanky

      Stick. Wrong end of.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Amazing how many confuse Christmas with Easter. I attended a Christmas church service herein Penang (well, they threw in a free lunch), and what a bunch of Muppets. Easter and Christmas juxtaposed, emulate conception and virgin birth considered to be one and the same. Comes to something when you have to tell these happy-clappy jokers what they’re supposed to believe.

    • Emilia

      Like the Scottish ‘outwith’.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Don we now our gay apparel…

  • Emilia

    The First Nowell – when I was small I thought that “to certain poor shepherds” must involve a transitive verb which I had not come across before – ie ‘to certain them, to make them certain’. Seemed logical at the time, and to be honest, it still does seem logical as I worked it out. I had never heard of a specific group referred to as ‘certain people’ either, so I reckon my tiny mind did well to come up with something I found credible.

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