The world of proofreading is not immune to the sugar-cookie siren song of the holidays, and at this time of year (yes, I really do this) I like to take a moment to re-read a favorite essay about punctuation.
The late New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg was for four decades one of the most important writers on classical music in the country. But he also was an enthusiast of chess and English literature, and back in 1971 (reprinted in his 1981 collection Facing the Music) he wrote a holiday piece headlined “God Rest You, Wandering Comma,” which is about the original punctuation of the 18th-century English broadside ballad and Christmas carol that contains these five words in its first line: “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.”
But how is that punctuated?
Apparently, the comma moves around depending on the source. It’s God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen in some early printings of the song, and in others it’s God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. According to this detailed blog entry from an English philosophy professor (http://cathythinks.blogspot.com/2009/01/god-rest-you-merry-again.html), it’s supposed to be after “merry,” and it essentially means God bless you, gentlemen.
I think you could make a case that if it comes after “you,” it means God keep you or perhaps God protect you, but if it comes after “merry,” it means God keep you happy. In the larger scheme of the salutation, it’s almost the same thing. It’s a hearty wish for the season, and a reminder to a Christian audience that they had a reason to be happy. So you could argue that either placement of the comma makes good sense.
I started to think about other Christmas carols for which we could move a comma and change the sense and came up with some possibilities:
O Come, All Ye Faithful, or O Come All, Ye Faithful: The first version ultimately means all the faithful should hit the road to Bethlehem as soon as possible. But the second version, with the comma in a different place, suggests that there was some question from the faithful about whether all of them really needed to make the trip.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, or Hark the Herald, Angels Sing: The first means Listen up, there are some angels up there with an important message. The second doesn’t make a lot of sense, maybe, but it could mean Wake the herald, because we just heard something out of the ordinary.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or Have Yourself a Merry, Little Christmas: The first one has no comma and urges the listener to enjoy himself or herself at this festive time of year. The second one adds a comma, apparently to urge the listener, a small person named Christmas, to dip into the eggnog for an insides-warming shot of alcoholic holiday happiness.
If you’ve got some other suggestions for tweaking Christmas song meanings with comma placement, list them here and we’ll have some holiday fun. By the way, Schonberg opted for God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen, and while I prefer the comma after “merry,” we can all agree that it doesn’t make much difference when you’re singing it – especially if you’ve been joining Little Christmas at the punchbowl.