This New Year’s Eve, while you’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” (Old English for “old long-since”) and drinking champagne (named after the province in France where it is made), perhaps you’ll make a resolution (first practiced in the mid-1800s). When we normally speak of resolution, we usually mean the degree of detail in a photograph or a television set (actually, the word refers to the separation of something into component parts). Modern flat screen TVs that are “1080p” have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels – the more pixels, the more detail and greater resolution. We can also find resolutions to problems.
At this time of year, however, the word takes on a different meaning. We make resolutions, meaning things that we are determined to do (or not do, as the case may be). While this practice of reflection and intention at the start of a new year has been around for over a century, the popular use of the word in this context dates back to Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece:
“Then Love and Fortune be my gods, my guide!
My will is backt with resolution:
Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried;
The blackest sin is clear’d with absolution”
So test your resolve and make some resolutions, for the sake of auld lang syne.
Poinsettias – the beautiful, leafy red plant, is a Christmas icon. It is unique in that it’s the leaves (technically, bracts) that are red – the “flowers” are the tiny yellow clusters rising off the bracts. But what about that difficult-to-pronounce name? Actually, it’s pronounced just like it is spelled: poyn-settee- uh. However, if you pronounce it this way your friends will probably give you a strange look, as if you just returned from lessons with Henry Higgins (for those of you who aren’t Broadway savvy, he trained Eliza Doolittle in the King’s English in My Fair Lady). They will wonder why you suddenly think you’re better than they (notice I didn’t say than them). Next, you’ll be saying “coo-pon” instead of “q-pon.” So, better to avoid the accusations of snobbery and pronounce it the common way, which is to add a t and remove an i: point-setta. It’s quicker (you save a whole syllable!) and you won’t lose any friends. Well, not the fun ones, anyway.
So who is to blame for this verbal brouhaha? The botanical name of the plant, actually a shrub, is euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful” in Latin. No one would argue with that, but this doesn’t roll off the tongue any easier than “poinsettia.” The common name by which we know it today comes from the very first United States ambassador to Mexico, where the shrub is native. He found it in the Mexican countryside in 1828 and brought it back to South Carolina. His name? Joel Poinsett. I wonder how many people mispronounced his name? And did anyone notice that his first name means “Christmas” in French?
The title of the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – the only Christmas carol that Dickens included in “A Christmas Carol” – has a construction that is strange to our ears. This is for three reasons. The first is that it’s grammatically incorrect. The archaic word “ye” is in the wrong case, and there is some speculation that it was changed (from the correct “you”) after the fact to make the carol sound more quaint. This is why you see some revisionist texts where the carol is actually called “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” Secondly, the word “rest” here is used in an archaic sense and means “keep.” Shakespeare used the contemporary (and grammatically correct) phrase rest you merry in “Romeo & Juliet” (I.ii.83) over a century before the carol, when it basically meant “peace and happiness to you.” Lastly, notice the comma after the word “merry.” The sentiment being expressed is the hope that God rests (keeps) you merry, gentlemen – in other words, the subjects of the carol are not “merry gentlemen” who needed rest. And that first line in the second verse: “In Bethlehem, in Jewry,” is a reference to the land of the Israelites, not to an “injury!”
There’s one thing I always wondered endlessly as a kid at this time of year: who the heck is Fannie Bright, and why is she seated by my side?
The popular song “Jingle Bells” was written in 1850 by James Pierpont, the nephew of John Pierpont Morgan – yes, that J.P. Morgan, the well-known financier. He was a Unitarian minister in Medford, Mass., where the song was reportedly written, and he was inspired by the sleigh races held in that town. It is speculated that it was not originally a Christmas song, but was written for Thanksgiving (as was “Over the River and Through the Woods,” whose author, Lydia Marie Child, was curiously also from Medford, Mass. Sleighs were a big deal in this town!). The original title was “One Horse Open Sleigh,” and the reworked title, “Jingle Bells,” is actually a command (which should include a comma, as in jingle, bells!), not a type of bell. These bells are tied to a “bob tail,” a reference to a work horse’s docked tail. As for Miss Fannie Bright – a curious name if ever there was one – no one but Pierpont seems to know for sure who she was, if she was a real person at all. Given that he was a minister, it is doubtful that the name is a bawdy pun. One thing is certain: she is not Fanny Brice, the famous Ziegfeld Follies girl, as is sometimes mistakenly sung (like by me, as a child). Brice wouldn’t be born for another forty years.
By the way, I have a similar curiosity about Parson Brown of “Winter Wonderland” fame. Perhaps Fannie knows him.