Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...

my true love gave to me...

Four Calling Birds

I had a fascinating honors History of Western Civilization class in college that focused on "Rhetoric" and even though I took the course as a very underqualified freshman, its impact on me has been lasting.  The professor, Dr. Gideon Burton, commented once that languages eventually climax and then deteriorate until they become new languages.  My personal opinion is that the English language was at is best in the period between 1770 to 1850 and has then commenced its decline. 

This "Four Calling Birds" situation is a perfect example and evidence of how easily we mess up our own language.  The song was originally "Four Colly Birds".  Colly, colley, collie, coaly all mean black, like coal.  This stanza of the songs was about blackbirds, not beautiful singing birds!  But I guess "Calling" birds sounds better when words like "colly" become archaic and the general public doesn't know what it means.

Apparently blackbirds baked into a pie in medieval times were a delicacy.  But which blackbirds?  Ravens, crows, starlings? Or does it refer to the bird known in England as the Blackbird that is not even related to the blackbirds most of us know, but more closely related to the American Robin, but not all related to what people in England know of as a Robin.  Confused yet!  Yeah, so is our language.  Bah humbug!


  1. Blackbird pie doesn't sound too good to me. Interesting info though.

  2. Interesting language lesson here. Coaly or collie is how Collie's got their name also since the dogs followed the coal drovers. Also, some collie's are black. As for the birds, I don't want to eat any of them but most blackbirds would qualify as "calling" birds in my book since they can raise such a racket! And just think of Edgar Allen Poe and his raven that called out "Nevermore!"