Four Calling Birds? Not Exactly.
That line from "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? You've been singing it wrong.
Happy New Year! In the warm and generous spirit of the holidays, we’re making this week’s bonus segment free to all. But there’s more: Until the end of the year, you can get 30% off a subscription to Booksmart Studios. You’ll get extra written content and access to bonus segments like this one. More importantly, you’ll be championing all the work we do here. Become a member of Booksmart Studios today.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a slog. It's repetitive, replete with archaic imagery and long — and so one can be forgiven for getting a bit sloppy with the lyrics. That's what happened with the phrase “colly birds,” which eventually mutated to “calling birds.” Wait, what's a colly bird? John explains.
JOHN McWHORTER: For our bonus segment, I want to share something that I think is just a joy. The Twelve Days of Christmas — you know that Christmas carol that kind of goes on and on? You know, you’re singing it wrong and the kids are singing it right.
Think about it: You're standing there and somebody starts singing that song and you've got some eggnog, or hopefully something stronger. And you know that eight-year-old who's standing there next to you, and maybe they've got the lyric pretty much down? But there's something that you always hear them do. I'm almost sure I did this at a certain age. And so it's (singing): “fiiiiive golden rings!” Well, everybody does that. Then you hear the little girl next to you: “four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves,” because they don't know what a “calling bird” would be.
🎶 MUSIC (Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters) 🎶
So “four colly birds, three French hens,” right.
But you know what? Do you know what a “calling bird” is? And yet, if you were writing the lyric, would you put that? Like, OK, a bird that calls, but who ever says, “Ooohhhh, look, it's a calling bird.” That's not something anybody says. And you know what? “Colly birds” is right! Nobody wrote about calling birds! That's something that people thought it was, because nobody knows what a colly bird is anymore.
A colly bird is a bird that's black. It's coal colored, it's coaly. And then the sound changes. And so in earlier British dialects, you talked about, “Oh, that coaly bird,” except you'd say, “Well, it's a colly bird.” And so it's a colly bird!
So five golden rings and then four black birds — not that they're calling; if you think about it, when you give people birds, usually they're petrified. They're not calling unless it's a talking parrot, and you just know that this song is not about parrots. So it's not “five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens”; it's colly!
From now on, you should listen to that girl next to you — you know, let's call her Delia — and she's going “five golden rings, four colly birds, three French hens” and you say, “Oh no, no, no, Delia, it's calling birds.” No, it isn't.
🎶 THEME MUSIC 🎶
You think about yourself. It's colly birds and then the French hens — why are they French? That's another story. Then turtle doves and then a partridge in, apparently, an entire tree. You can see that’s a show in this song itself.
But they're colly birds. Isn’t that nice? So there's the bonus segment for this episode.
If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts— Banished and Bully Pulpit — or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo, and I am John McWhorter.