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The Lord Is Come?

Today's topic is Christmas carols.

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #31

 

A listener named Kat says her holiday joy is crushed every time she hears the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” She asks: 

Why do we sing "Joy to the world, the Lord is come," rather than "Joy to the world, the Lord has come"?

Not wanting Kat to face the holidays with grammar consternation, I went on a quest to figure out what's going on with these lyrics.

Archaic English

It actually turned out to be a pretty tough question, but I eventually discovered that the phrase the Lord is come uses an archaic form of English that was very common back in 1719 when “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts. A number of references say that this construction uses the word come as an unaccusative intransitive verb (and don't worry: you don't need to remember that because it's a form that's now nearly extinct in the English language [1]).

If you're watching for it, you'll find similar constructions in a lot of older works. For example, in the 1300s Chaucer wrote, “The spices and wine is come anon,"* in The Squire's Tale.  In the late 1700s Jane Austen wrote, “Oh, look. Charlotte is come,” in Pride and Prejudice, and in the 1800s William Blake wrote, “The melancholy days are come,” in The Death of Flowers, and Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is come now,” in Jane Eyre. I found examples from as late as the early 1900s (2). But what happened after that?

Sometime in the 1900s people stopped speaking this way. I'm not sure why, but one reference said that it might have been “partly due to the identical pronunciation of is and has” when they're used in contractions. For example, "he's come" could mean either "He is come" or "He has come" (3).

I don't usually talk about foreign languages, but I found it interesting that many Romance languages, such as French and Italian, still use this verb form, and it is normal today in those languages to say the English equivalent of "He is come."

A lot of the material I found about archaic English usage was far too complex for Quick and Dirty Tips, so I am including a list of further-reading resources at the end of the transcript for people who want to learn more about it.

Administrative

A big thank-you to every single subscriber out there. Every one of you helped make Grammar Girl a People's Choice podcast for 2006 at iTunes, and also thank you to the iTunes staff who chose Grammar Girl as a Staff Favorite for 2006. We are thrilled.

Finally, if any of you are wondering what I would like for Christmas, I have two simple requests for anyone who's celebrating a holiday. First, just relax and be kind to others. I'm sure The Modern Manners Guy would approve of that message!

And second, millions of people will be getting new phones this month. If you know someone who has received a phone as a gift, make sure they know about podcasts. Because you're listening to this show, you already know how much wonderful, free content is available, so make sure your friends and family don't miss out.

If you're listening on the website, head on over to iTunes, where you can subscribe to Grammar Girl so that you never miss another episode.

*Original spelling: "The spyces and the wyn is come anon."

References

  1. Melyngoch, A. A. 100 Hour Board. 2005. BYU Newsnet. http://theboard.byu.edu/index.php?area=viewall&id=15836 (accessed December 19, 2006).
  2. Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916). Searc's Web Guide to 20th Century Ireland.  http://www.searcs-web.com/mcdonagh.html (accessed December 19, 2006).
  3. Carol. be+intransitive. 2001. The Maven's Word of the Day.  http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010912 (accessed December 19, 2006).

Further Reading (in no particular order)

 

Donnor Pass Snow image, Doug Letterman at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.