The Final Word Less One - on any subject anywhere any time that the author finds interesting -

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The color of "Calling Birds"

"On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds...."

Sounds pretty, doesn't it? Four birds calling and singing Christmas carols....

Except it's not that. It's a great illustration of how the words of one century get twisted and turned around in later eras.

What sounds like "calling" to modern ears is "colly" or "collie" in the original, as in the related word collier meaning a miner of coal. Colly means "colored like coal" or black. The lady's true love is giving her four blackbirds, the same variety of which gets "baked into a pie" in Sing a Song of Six Pence:

Sing a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie
When the pie was opened the birds begin to sing
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

And yep, blackbirds were really grocery items back in the day. Think chicken pot pie except not chicken...

And the notion of putting live birds beneath a pasty crust was the medieval equivalent of the dribble glass, considered to be just hilarious. Presumably after the bird were released and had pooped all over the diners, the chef would bring in the real pie.

The above picture depicts the Twelfth Night Feast (Christmas Feast) at the Duc de Berry (he's the gentleman in ornate blue robe with the gold pattern and we are greatly indebted to him for the lovely illustrations he commissioned which showcase his time for us). I regret that there are no bird erupting from pies, but probably that took place off-camera.

But the difference between calling birds and colly birds should cause us to reflect on the untrustworthy nature of words to shift and change...sometimes right in front of us. Words like "gay" and "straight" for example are words where the meanings changed in the blink of an eye.

Whenever anybody tells me that the only safe way to interpret the Bible is literally, I think of the colly birds and how a nice gift of food got turned into something fanciful. I always want to ask the literal Bible reader which translation they are using, and which translation that translation was based on and other things which are probably unkind to ask. They usually fall back on "This is the word of God" defense and all the translators were divinely inspired so they wouldn't have made any mistakes. Asking them to compare different editions and translations of the Bible is downright cruel because there are some passages where the translators have given us diverse images.

Most of these passages are not that important. Not sure why anybody would worry about whether
Agag came* "on trembling feet", or "with a blithe step" or "in chains". Agag and his gruesome Old Testament fate doesn't seem to have much bearing on what Christ did or said later, but he sure did give the translators fits. Maybe his purpose was to keep them humble and remind them that however divinely inspired they thought they were, they were only human.

Thing like words and the marvelous way they twist and change down through time interest me, because I like words and the whole aspect of trying to communicate with the little devils is so fraught, especially when dealing with things like religious truths that have to be approached sideways and through parable and metaphor.

To me there's an added dimension to knowing that the beautiful "calling birds" of my imagination were plain old blackbirds once upon a time. Plus I think the knowledge tempers extravagant expectation with prosaic reality. Not a bad thing for a holiday...or for a people or a religion or a political campaign--because when the shouting stops, you still gotta govern. A pinch of reality makes  true love stronger.

This is the fifth blog of Christmas.

*I Samuel 32 - My King James Revised American Standard Version says "cheerfully". Anyway he gets hacked in pieces in Verse 33.

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