Q: Which is the more traditional version of this Christmas carol: “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”? I see it both ways, but the one with “you” looks better to me.
A: You’re right—“you” makes more sense than “ye” in this case, as we’ll explain later. In fact, the original pronoun in that early 18th-century carol was “you.”
But that isn’t the only misunderstanding associated with the song. There’s that wayward comma too. Here’s the story.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, English speakers used “rest you” or “rest thee” with a positive adjective (“merry,” “well,” “tranquil,” “happy,” “content”) to mean “remain in that condition.” (The verb “rest” is used in a somewhat similar sense today in the expressions “rest assured” and “rest easy.”)
In the earliest and most common of such expressions, the adjective was “merry,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And at the time, “merry” had a meaning (happy, content, pleased) that’s now obsolete.
So in medieval English, the friendly salutation “rest you (or thee) merry” meant remain happy, content, or pleased. The OED explains it more broadly as “an expression of good wishes” that meant “peace and happiness to you.”
The form “rest you merry” was used in addressing two or more people, while “rest thee merry” was used for just one. This is because our modern word “you,” the second-person pronoun, originally had four principal forms: the subjects were “ye” (plural) and “thou” (singular); the objects were “you” (plural) and “thee” (singular). The expression we’re discussing required an object pronoun.
The OED’s earliest example of the expression, in 13th-century Middle English, shows a single person being addressed: “Rest þe [thee] murie, sire Daris” (the letter þ, a thorn, represented a “th” sound). From Floris and Blanchefleur (circa 1250), a popular romantic tale that dates from the 1100s in Old French.
As early as the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, “you” began to replace the other second-person pronouns. By the early 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes in ordinary usage: objective and nominative, singular and plural.
As a result, the usual form of the old expression became “rest you merry” even when only one person was addressed. And it was often preceded by “God” as a polite salutation, with the meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness,” the OED says. The dictionary cites several early examples of the formula:
- “o louynge [loving] frende god rest you mery.” From an instructional book, Floures for Latine Spekynge Gathered Oute of Terence (1534), by Nicholas Udall. (The English is presented as a translation of the Latin greeting Amice salue.)
- “God rest you mery bothe and God be your guide.” From Like Wil to Like (1568), a morality play by Ulpian Fulwell.
- “God rest you merry sir.” From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1600).
Soon after Shakespeare’s time, we find the formulaic “rest you merry” addressed to “gentlemen.” In plays of the 17th century in particular, it’s often spoken by a character in greeting or parting from friends.
The popular playwright John Fletcher, for example, used “rest you merry gentlemen” in at least two of his comedies: Wit Without Money (c. 1614) and Monsieur Thomas (c. 1610-16).
It also appears in several other comedies of the period, including works by the pseudonymous “J. D., Gent” (The Knave in Graine, 1640), Abraham Cowley (Cutter of Coleman-Street, 1658), Thomas Southland (Love a la Mode, 1663), and William Mountfort (Greenwich-Park, 1691).
In most of the 17th-century examples we’ve found, there’s no comma in “God rest you merry gentlemen.” When a comma does appear, it comes after “merry,” not before: “Rest you merry, gentlemen.” This is because “rest you merry” is addressed to the “gentlemen.”
In his comedy Changes: or, Love in a Maze (1632), James Shirley has “Gentlemen, rest you merry,” a use that more clearly illustrates the sense of the expression and removes any ambiguity.
This brings us to the Christmas song “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”— the title as given in The Oxford Book of Carols and other authoritative collections. The oldest existing printed version of the song was published around 1700, though the lyrics were probably known orally before that.
As the OED says, “rest you merry” is no longer used as an English expression; it survives only in the carol. But the syntax of the title, the dictionary adds, “is frequently misinterpreted, merry being understood as an adjective qualifying gentlemen.” So the comma is often misplaced after “you,” as if those addressed were “merry gentlemen.”
In fact, the carol originally had no title. The words first appeared, as far as we can tell, in a single-page broadsheet entitled Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays with only a generic designation—“Carol I. On Christmas-Day.” The broadsheet had no music, either; the words were sung to a variety of tunes.
The sheet was probably published in 1700 or 1701, according to the database Early English Books Online. Some commentators have said the lyrics existed earlier, but we haven’t found any documents to show this. The other three songs on the sheet are designated “Carol II. On St. Stephen’s-Day,” “Carol III. On St. John’s-Day,” and “Carol IV. On Innocent’s-Day.” Here’s a facsimile of the front side, with “Carol I” at left.
“God rest you merry Gentlemen” (without a comma) is the first line of “Carol I,” and it later became used as the title. It appeared as the title in some printings of the carol by the late 1700s.
But well into the 19th century the song was sometimes referred to simply as “Old Christmas Carol” (in Sam Weller, a play by William Thomas Moncreiff, London, 1837) or “A Christmas Carol” (in The Baltimore County Union, a weekly newspaper in Towsontown, MD, Dec. 23, 1865).
For the most part, music publishers over the years have printed the title with “you” (not “ye”) and with the comma after “merry,” a form that accurately represents the original meaning. But in books, newspapers, and other writing the title has also appeared with “ye,” a misplaced comma, or both.
Why the misplaced comma? Apparently the old senses of “rest” and “merry” were forgotten, and the title was reinterpreted in ordinary usage. It was understood to mean that a group of “merry gentlemen” were encouraged to relax and be jolly.
The OED’s earliest example of the misconception dates from the early 19th century, where Samuel Jackson Pratt refers to “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” as “a time-embrowned ditty” (Gleanings in England, 2nd ed., 1803).
And why the shift from “you” to “ye”? Our guess is that it represents an attempt to make the carol sound older or more “traditional.” (Not coincidentally, “ye” began appearing in place of “you” in 18th- and 19th-century reprints of those old comedies we mentioned above, as if to make them more antique.)
We’ve found scores of “ye” versions of the carol dating from the 1840s onwards in ordinary British and American usage.
A search of Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “you” versions were predominant in books and journals until the mid-20th century. But in the 1960s, “ye” versions began to rise, and by the ’80s they had surpassed the “you” versions. (Placement of the comma isn’t searchable on Ngram.)
Today, both the “ye” and the misplaced comma are ubiquitous in common usage, despite the way the title is printed by most music publishers and academic presses.
Perhaps the music of the carol bears some of the blame for the wayward comma. While the song has had several different musical settings, it’s now sung to music, most likely imported from Europe, that some scholars believe was first published in Britain in 1796. And the tune doesn’t allow for a pause before “gentlemen,” so the ear doesn’t sense a comma there.
As the music scholar Edward Wickham writes, “The comprehension of whole sentences of text, when sung, relies in part on the perception of how those sentences are segmented and organised.”
“The music to the Christmas carol ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen,’ ” Wickham says, “makes no provision for the comma and thus is routinely misunderstood as ‘God rest you, merry Gentlemen.’ ” (“Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing,” a chapter in Experimental Affinities in Music, 2015, edited by Paulo de Assis.)
One final observation. All this reminds us of an entirely different “ye” misunderstanding—the mistaken use of “ye” as an article. This misconception shows up in signage of the “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe” variety, an attempt at quaintness that we wrote about in 2009 and again in 2016.