On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four calling birds…
Which might well be a wondrous gift to receive from my beloved, if only I knew what ‘calling birds’ were?
The four calling birds element of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ has seen many changes since the song was published in a children’s book around 1780, which over the years has been cited as ‘four canary birds’, ‘four mockingbirds’ and, more recently, ‘four colly (or collie) birds’.
‘Colly’ is the closest in sound to ‘calling’ so that makes sense, but I was still none the wiser on what type of bird is being described and so, the fact-finding mission continued.
It seems that colly - or collie - means black as coal or soot, as in collier, coal miner or colliery and explains why ‘colly/collie bird’ is supposedly an archaic term for what is now known as a blackbird.
Granted, ‘four blackbirds’ doesn’t quite fit the song as well as the familiar ‘calling birds’ verse but as there have been so many variations of the lyrics, it is a wonder the current adaptation hasn’t since been revised to a term more recognised by the modern generation.
Fascinating to discover how words and phrases have transformed throughout the years, along with people’s interpretations. Of course, this may well be because words play an integral part in what we do in PR but the fact that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ continues to be sung each year after centuries of its creation demonstrates how powerful words can be – even as they adapt and evolve.
With that in mind, it’s exercises like this – taking a random subject and trying to discover it’s meaning – that highlights the importance of language and how it is used. As time goes on, words and pronunciations will constantly progress, with new words being invented and reinvented to reflect our ever-changing lives, experiences and cultures.
However, carols like this are designed to get us in the true spirit of the holidays (aside from the extravagant gift-giving) and reflect on times gone by. For me, this message also applies to the written word – whilst words and the way in which we use them will change, it’s good to know how we may have used them in the past.
Surely, this is the only way we can fully understand how to communicate a message that resonates with others, not just now but years to come.
Check out our previous instalments to read our takes on the 12 gifts