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Why? “To save us all from Satan’s pow’r / When we were gone astray.” That’s why. Do try to keep up.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

An ancient carol from the 15th century. The first recorded version is found in Three New Christmas Carols, dated c. 1760. Note that the correct placement of the comma in the first line determines the meaning.

In modern times the comma slid from behind “merry,” to in front of “,merry” which flips the whole carol topsy turvy. The original sentiment is for God to keep you merry*** in the face of whatever suffering may assail you in life. (A kind of archaic “Have a good day”.) At the same time, the word “merry”*** itself has to be understood in its original meaning.

*** ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ & The Lost Punctuation Mark | 

When modern people say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means happy. When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.

So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means you, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world and a lost punctuation mark.

The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means keep or make. Yet to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas.”

 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David December 24, 2019, 1:18 PM

    Thank you for that. I really appreciate your love of the English language.

  • James ONeil December 24, 2019, 2:38 PM

    I’m not sure merry is mighty, I lean more toward the Old English myrge; pleasing in manner or agreeable, then again, I’m not sure merry isn’t mighty
    .
    Not germane (-However when discussing words, language and origins, I suspect that one’s mind always goes off on tangents.) but I’m pretty sure eye and symmetry rhymed in William Blake’s day.

  • matthew schaffer December 24, 2019, 3:45 PM

    I’m sold! The mightier the merrier.

  • Vanderleun December 24, 2019, 5:39 PM

    I’m with ONeil on eye and symmetry.
    But which rhyme way I cannot say.

  • ghostsniper December 24, 2019, 5:53 PM

    Ever notice santa and satan are the same word, just different?
    St Nickleanddimeus to def.

  • Nori December 24, 2019, 6:51 PM

    Splendid. This has always been my favorite Christmas carol. Miz Lennox does it with gusto,thank you very much.As befitting a proper Englishwoman. God Save England.

    On that note,Black Adder’s Christmas Carol is warming up in the dvd thingy,to help me thru prep 4 tomorrow’s feast.

    God rest ye merry,gentlemen.

  • Jewel December 25, 2019, 7:05 PM

    The Unicorn in the Bible is another such word that doesn’t mean what we think it means. In fact, if you look up the definition of unicorn from a few hundred years ago, and a few hundred years ahead of the KJV of the Bible, you will find this interesting bit of useless knowledge: (Early 1600s)
    Numbers 23:22
    God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

    From Webster’s Dictionary (1828)
    U’NICORN, noun [Latin unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn.]
    1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros.
    2. The sea unicorn is a fish of the whale kind, called narwal, remarkable for a horn growing out at his nose.
    3. A fowl.
    fossil unicorn or fossil unicorn’s horn, a substance used in medicine, a terrene crustaceous spar.
    Nary a pretty, prancing, rainbow glittered, one-horned pony to be found in all the pages of the Bible or the dictionary.

  • Casey Klahn December 25, 2019, 9:42 PM

    Merry, Christmas (I guess that’s right) to the gentle people present.

  • SoylentGreen December 26, 2019, 6:42 AM

    God rest ye merry, gentlemen… basically, Make America Great Again!

    • Ray Van Dune December 24, 2021, 7:54 AM

      “God rest ye merry, Americans”?

  • JM December 25, 2020, 9:30 AM

    Strong’s Hebrew
    Search results for: unicorn

    5 entries found. Showing up to 25.
    Strong’s Hebrew: 7214. רְאֵם (reem) — a wild ox
    … ; in simile of skipping, leaping, בֶּןרְֿאֵמִים Psalm 29:6 (” ” עֵגֶּל) . Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance unicorn Or rieym {reh-ame’}; or reym {rame}; or rem {rame}; from ra’am …
    https://biblehub.com/hebrew/7214.htm

  • gwbnyc December 27, 2020, 2:01 PM

    there’s a comma toward the end of “Blood Meridian” and due to McCarthy being fast&loose with his puctuation might or might not be included and significantly change the thrust of the novel either or.

  • Vanderleun December 27, 2020, 5:31 PM

    Just where please.

  • gwbnyc December 27, 2020, 9:32 PM

    Somewhere in the blogs dissecting the novel it was mentioned. You might try simply searching “the comma in Blood Meridian”.

    I recall seeing it vaguely mentioned here&there while my interest in the book’s minutia increased and then found a direct reference to it on a board frequented by enthusiasts and I don’t recall which. Eventually I was led to the page.

    That’s all I have given an elder’s memory and best luck with it. There’s a reference “Notes on Blood Meridian”/Sepich that is quite useful.

    Now I have half an urge to be off to destroy that I don’t know of 😉

  • Princess Cutekitten December 24, 2021, 7:37 AM

    Merry Christmas to all!

  • John Venlet December 24, 2021, 8:05 AM

    In the same vein of accurate placement of commas, Ann, today, has a post up touching on the accurate translation of Luke 2:14 – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” This translation is how many Bible translations read. Ann points out that Luke 2:14 should read this way – “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

    I think she is correct. The post also mentions Linus of Peanuts fame. If you’re interested, it’s worth a read.

    Linus Van Pelt on Translation Accuracy of the Gloria, and Moral Fortitude

  • Denny December 24, 2021, 8:28 AM

    I believe you’re correct Gerard. Maybe the placement of the comma is only one, but a very good example and explanation of why the Gospel used to demand praise, thanksgiving, fear, obedience and awe towards our Creator. However now, with the missing comma, “god” becomes our servant and sort of Santa’s cash register in the sky instead of the final miraculous solution to human guilt and murderous depravity.

  • patvann December 24, 2021, 9:48 AM

    Like my fav nun in grade school told us, “sing to the back row.”

  • patvann December 24, 2021, 9:51 AM

    Merry Christmas, Jewell…. Please keep an eye on us…

    • Mike Austin December 24, 2021, 3:13 PM

      Your words were a kick in the soul. Yes, Jewel is gone. But of course, she is not gone. She has gone…ahead. The things she now sees. The things she now knows.

  • James ONeil December 24, 2021, 10:09 AM

    & a very Merry Christmas, best wishes for a Happy coming New Year to all men of good will

    and (expletive deleted) our so called leaders wishing to destroy it all!

  • julie December 24, 2021, 10:21 AM

    Somehow, I have missed seeing this post in the past.

    God rest ye merry, everyone! And peace to all people of goodwill!

  • Walter Sobchak December 24, 2021, 11:18 AM

    Gerard: I love you, but I don’t think this interpretation is correct. I looked up merry in my print edition of the OED (the web edition is pay walled). The first definition of merry is as an adjective (A.) 3. Of persons and their attributes: Full of animated enjoyment … joyous, mirthful, hilarious. The citations go back to 1320. Related meanings, e.g. 1. Of things: Pleasing or agreeable. are supported by citations to sources from the 9th Century.

    Also, I think the comma is properly placed after gentlemen. Also, there is no caesura in the music after either word. And, the singers do not inhale until after dismay. http://openhymnal.org/Pdf/God_Rest_Ye_Merry_Gentlemen-God_Rest_Ye_Merry_Gentlemen.pdf

    I think the guy who wrote the article that underlies your post was making it up. I think the words are properly understood by all native speakers of English without any historical explication.

  • gwbnyc December 24, 2021, 2:00 PM

    God have us in his keeping.

    FROM HIS WIFE MARGARET TO JOHN PASTON I
    12/24/1469

    Ryght wvrschipful husbond, I recomaund me on-to yov. Plese it yov to wete that I sent yovr eldest svnne to my Lady Morlee to haue knolage qwat sportys were husyd in here hows in Kyrstemesse next folloyng aftyr the deceysse of my lord here husbond. And sche seyd that þere were non dysgysynggys nere harpyng nere lvtyng nere syngyn, nere non lowde dysportys, but pleyng at the tabyllys and schesse and cardys, sweche dysportys sche gave here folkys leve to play, and non odyr.

    Yovr svnne dede hese heyrne ryght wele, as ye xal here aftyr þis. I sent yovr yongere svnne to the Lady Stabylton, and sche seyd acordyng to my Lady Morlees seyng in that, and as sche hadde seyn hvsyd in placys of wvrschip þere as sche hathe beyn.

    I pray you that ye woll asay to gett sume man at Castere to kepe your botry, for the mane that ye lefte wyth me woll not take vp-on hym to breve dayly as ye commandyt. He seyth he hath not vsyd to geve a rekenyng nothyre of bred nor alle tyll at the wekys end, and he seyth he wot well that he xuld not con don yth; and therfore I soposse he xhall not abyd. And I trowe ye xall be fayne to porveye another man for Symond, for ye hare nevere the nerer a wysse man for hym.

    I am sory that ye xall not at hom be for Crystemes. I pray you that ye woll come as sone as ye may. I xhall thynke my-selfe halfe a wedowe because ye xal not be at home, &c. God haue you in hys kepyng. Wretyn on Crystemes Evyn. By your M. P.

  • waitingForTheStorm December 25, 2021, 7:41 AM

    Thank you, sir, for posting this article again. I enjoy this discussion each year, even more as the years go by and I age and relax. The Annie Lennox version appeals to me more so than others I have heard. I just like the sound of the rendition.

    My father died Christmas day in 1997 (25 years ago this day) after a long, brutal battle with a gruesome form of cancer. I held his hand and caressed his forehead as he breathed his last breath. I changed profoundly. It took some years before I saw again the joy of the season, and that was awakened by the love and joy of an exchange student from Japan, who embraced the day with a wonder and excitement that was infectious.

    God rest you merry, gentleman. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    • waitingForTheStorm December 25, 2021, 7:48 AM

      Sorry for the math error. 24 years ago, but a powerful memory, nonetheless.