Tuesday, September 21, 2021
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‘Five golden rings, four colly birds . . . ‘ Wait, colly birds? What’s a colly bird?

🕐 2 min read

In “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” one’s true love bestows, among other things, a partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, six geese, seven swans and four calling birds.

Right? Maybe not.

The “calling” birds were originally “colly” birds, according to a blog post by Peter Armenti, the literature specialist for the Digital Reference Section at the Library of Congress.

“Colly bird?”

It’s essentially a black bird, Armenti said Wednesday.

Although both “calling” and “colly” have appeared in versions of the song, “colly,” which is derived from the Old English word for coal, predates “calling” by more than a century, he wrote.

And the reference is to the color of the bird, not its voice.

” ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was first published, likely after years of oral circulation, around 1780 in the book ‘Mirth Without Mischief,’ ” Armenti wrote. Then, the term used was “colly birds.”

The song initially appeared without music, and may have been meant for recitation rather than as lyrics.

Later versions used “collie” and “colley,” he wrote.

Armenti checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which traced the word back to lines from Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation from Latin of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’:

As thou thou prating Raven white by nature being bred,

Hadst on thy fethers justly late a coly colour spred.

The “calling birds” version of the song was popularized 300 years later when the melody was published in 1909 by the English opera singer and composer Frederic Austin, Armenti wrote.

Armenti, 38, said he grew up in and around Trenton, N.J., and every Christmas Eve his family would gather, pick phrases from the song out of a hat, and sing it.

Most sang “calling birds,” he said. “In fact, my three-and-a-half-year-old son . . . was learning it in school, and he says ‘calling birds.’ “

“As colly passed out of common usage among English-language speakers, it’s no surprise that Austin’s similar-sounding alternative calling became more popular,” he wrote.

“Frederic Austin reached for another term that had a similar sound to it, but was something that was more understandable because it was common usage,” he said. Today, “nobody, if you ask them, would be able to tell you what a colly bird is.”

The debate raises the question: If colly was the original term, and if it referred to coal, shouldn’t the song be sung, “four coally birds?”

Perhaps, Armenti wrote in an email.

He checked the Oxford English Dictionary’s audio pronunciation guidance. “The word is definitely pronounced like ‘coally,’ ” he wrote.

“To think, all this time I’ve argued with my family that the correct word should be colly, and I wasn’t even pronouncing it properly!” he wrote.

“I wonder how many others have made the same mistake.”

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