The Lord Is Come?

Today's topic is Christmas carols.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #031


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?


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