Monday 17 December 2007

Today was the Physics Department carol service. Take a moment to contemplate this somewhat bizarre fusion of religion and science.

Thank you.

I haven’t been to a carol service for a few years and I’d forgotten some of the more entertaining games one can play whilst in the congregation.

One of my hobbies in carol services is singing the rhyme and not the word. For example, in popular Christmas carol ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, prolific hymn lyricist Charles Wesley attempts to rhyme ‘come’ with ‘womb’:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Sticking rigidly to the dogma of rhyme (which, apart from the false idol of rhyme, should be quite a popular move in a church), it is better to sing:

…late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s wum.

I almost think it is worth language evolving to incorporate this rhyme, because ‘wum’ is just a better word than ‘womb’. It might be something to do with the slight air of innuendo about it, even though it isn’t one. Also, (if you are a lady) your ‘wum’ being (in a highly simplified view of anatomy) opposite your bum has a beautiful etymological symmetry, don’t you think?

Another example, in ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ (a carol I sang for the first time today), the third verse would have us believe that:

He assumed this mortal body,
Frail and feeble, doomed to die,
That the race from dust created,
Might not perish utterly,
Which the dreadful Law had sentenced
In the depths of Hell to lie,
Evermore and evermore.

Perhaps even more implausible and weird than the notion of Jesus being created to die to save mankind is that ‘utterly’ rhymes with ‘die’. The best solution is probably to sing ‘utterlie’, though I suppose you could go the other way and sing ‘dee’ and ‘lee’. This, however, would have required some fairly competent rhyme-reading ahead, and also doesn’t allow you to (subtly) call the basis of Christian faith an utter lie in the middle of a carol service. (Not that I realised I’d done that until I wrote it out just now.)

This isn’t to condemn carols entirely…but unfortunately their crimes against lyrics do not end with non-rhymes. Other crimes provide other games, like ‘spot the very dodgy syllable-bending’ often required to make certain lines scan. Apostrophes and cheaty accents abound, with ‘th’angels’ delivering news of the ‘blessèd’ child; one might say a ‘wond’rous gift is giv’n’. It is rather unlikely that one would say that in everyday conversat’n, however.

Another mind-exercising game you can play is ‘recovering from lyrical cock-ups’. Most people have a reasonable idea of most carols’ lyrics, give or take. Even with my secular and amusical upbringing, I can recite a decent number of carols with only the odd glance at the hymn sheet. This is partly because they’re quite easy to guess, but they’re also quite easy to guess incorrectly. Conjunctions are the worst: ‘and’, ‘with’, ‘to’ and their brethren are easily interchanged if you’re making it up on the basis of a reasonable recollection. Your challenge? To ad-lib a line which has the correct syllable structure and also makes sense given the mistake you’ve made.

There was a somewhat depressing lack of spelling mistakes, typos and general idiocy in the physics order of service—once it said ‘Sun’ where I’m pretty sure it meant ‘Son’, and that was about it—which deprived me of the entertaining game which helped me through school services. Good King Wenceslas, our school hymn sheet told us reliably for six years, battled ‘through the rude wind’s wind lament’.

The opposite—pronunciation mistakes—did provide some mild entertainment, with the congregation collectively choking on ‘swathing’ as some people pronounced it ‘swaddling’, others pronounced it like the present participle of the verb ‘to swathe’ and most people made up a word starting with s and ending in g with some noises in the middle to cover for not being sure. Ha ha ha. The English language is too hard for idiots like its speakers.

As if all these carol games weren’t enough, the added bonus was that the short and furry chap conducting the choir inspired me to create my first cracker joke of the festive season.

‘What do you call a conductor with a beard and a fishing rod?

‘A metrognome.’

Ho ho ho.


  1. Glad to hear I’m not alone in deliberately singing the rhyme in hymns and carols. I never worked out why someone would put half-rhymes into a congregational song. Given my background in Christianity, I did unfortunately learn enough to be able to rhyme ahead – but it’s fun suggesting that Jesus was created by bees in the section of Hark the Herald you quoted above.

    Today at school, we had to sign “Joy to the World”… the ‘chorus’ goes as follows…

    And earth and heav’n rejoice,
    And earth and heav’n rejoice,
    And earth, and ea—aa–aa-earth and heav’n rejoice.

    I’m sure you could rearrange the lyrics a little to pop the ‘e’ back into heaven. (Is suggesting that people pop ‘e’ in heaven blasphemous? After all, doctrine suggests that God’s ang’ls are quite square.)

    Anyway, where was your service held?

  2. It was in the little bit at the end of the University Church, followed by wine and mince pies in the old library, a bizarre room upstairs in which, according to a small plaque there, Oxfam was founded in it in 1942.

  3. This? Made me laugh so hard I bounced the laptop off my lap. Well, not my lap so much as my thighs and tummy, since I use the laptop while lying supine in bed propped up by a mass of pillows (about seven, I believe) and the computer balanced as stated. I only explain in such detail because I thought that as a scientist you would appreciate exactness. Oh, and I am here in the first place reading your blog because I took a week’s course at Christ Church this summer just past (2011) and was housed in Peck 8:6, to my great delight. But I am enjoying the blog very much indeed.

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