November 29, 2021

Words of the Month - Caroling in a Cape?

         Do you prefer your carols a capella, or accompanied?  A carol has been a joyful song since about 1300, although it was also a circle dance, and may in the depths of its Greek etymology have involved accompaniment by a flute.  A capella has a much more interesting etymology.  It means literally, from Italian, “in the style of the chapel,” which may seem a little odd as most church music nowadays is accompanied by at least an organ, if not a full electronic “praise band.”  The phrase refers to older church music - sixteenth century and before - when much of the music was indeed unaccompanied chants.  Oddly, however, it didn’t enter English until the latter half of the nineteenth century, by which time it was already badly out of date to imply that unaccompanied vocals were in the style of church music.
        But let’s go back even further, to the etymology of capella and English chapel, which come from the same root.  A chapel is a place of worship smaller than a full church, and the word literally means “little cape.”  One theory is that this refers to the cloth laid over the altar during service, but a far more interesting theory is the traditional one: that the first “chapel” was the sanctuary in which the cape of St Martin of Tours was preserved as a relic.  (St Martin cut his cloak in half to give part to a beggar, and later dreamt that Jesus was wearing it.  But the relic is the half of the cloak that he kept.)
        In addition, the older traditional carols often include syntax, grammar, and vocabulary that don’t show up any more in the rest of our modern speech.  These unfamiliar words and phrases can lead to Mondegreens, like the four calling birds sung about at this time of year (prior post on Mondegreens here).  Some other phrases you may not hear much of outside of Christmas carols include:
skies - an archaic past tense of cleave, cloven means “split,” which makes the arrival of the angels very dramatic (but perhaps less fragrant-smelling, if you thought this had to do with cloves)
    gladsome tidings - meaning “making or causing to be glad,” -some is a suffix that is no longer productive in English, although you can still see it in a fair number of words including quarrelsome, meddlesome, cumbersome, troublesome, wearisome, and worrisome.
    bring him laud - We still use laud as a verb meaning “to praise,” and in the adjective laudatory, but it is no longer seen as a noun (meaning “praise, glory”) except in the carol.
    give ye heed - Nowadays we would say “you” instead of ye - except that in modern syntax we wouldn’t say the pronoun at all, but would rather use the imperative construction “give heed,” or more likely simply “heed”…  or even more likely, “Listen!”
    veiled in flesh the Godhead see - Between the syntax, the vocabulary, and the theology, this one is pretty dense to modern ears, though quite poetic, really.  The -head in Godhead is from the same root that developed in parallel into -hood, the form that is still productive today.  (Prior post on productive and unproductive suffixes here.)
        Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether you sing carols or not, such traditions are a vital way to keep some older forms of the language from disappearing entirely, which I think is always fun to see.

[Pictures: A Christmas Carol, woodcut by J.A. Duncan, 1899 (Image from Graham’s Antiques);

Saint Martin on Horseback, woodcut by Hans Baldung, early 16th century (Image from The Met);

The Angels, illustration from A Book of Christmas Verse Selected By H.C. Beeching, 1895 (Image from the British Library).]

1 comment:

Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

Thank you for this enlightening post. I am now much wiser, than when I began reading, which is a pleasure!
I love Mondegreens, and as a non-native, I make loads of them :) My own fave is "Ghost writers in disguise" I'm sure you can untangle this one.
Happy caroling!