Tuesday, 2 January 2018


Now the dust has begun to settle on another Christmas-tide [and oh yes, I'm not talking about a generic ecumenical Seasonal Festivities – after all it's Christmas Carols that have got the juices flowing]) I am writing again partly prompted by a question I've been asked about io as in io-io-io.

I  have written several times about carols and their opaque lyrics; I awarded a FOGgie to "Hinds o'er the pearly dewy lawn early" here (where I explain:

...the FOGgies are annual awards for outstandingly bad writing. The idea for the name derives from Robert Gunning's FOG index, although these awards don't restrict themselves only to obstacles to readability measured by that index.

) And elsewhere I wrote about those children crowned all in white, who wait around at the end of Adeste fidelis (or Hokum, all ye faithful as it's more commonly known). [That one's quite fun, I think, TISIAS; so much so that I tried to rekindle the flame here (failing, I think, although this snippet leaps out as fairly quotable:
To summarize [the "where like stars" verse] , the souls of the righteous, wearing haloes (in the manner of well-dressed saints everywhere, especially in Heaven) are positioned all around Himself, ready to jump to attention.

But Ding dong merrily on high has hitherto escaped my exegetical pen.

The first thing that strikes me is its structure – which is pretty neat. The first verse is about something happening in Heaven. The second verse draws a conclusion (E'en so) about what should, as a result, happen down here: let steeple bells be swungen. And the third verse goes into specifics, specifying what should happen at Prime...
I know, I know, this isn't a majority view. Still, it's what I think: Pray you Prime is a command about singing a particular office. An early editor, and ignoramus – a benighted heathen no doubt, who was not conversant with the format <utterance_word>+<office_name>, as in  for example "say Mass" – stuck a meaning-wrenching comma after you, making prime a ([n] improbable, it seems to me) verb. 
It just occurred to me that "chime Matins" fits the same pattern (although "chime" makes the format <utterance_word>+<office_name> a little over-specific [suggesting speech rather than just noise-making].)
... and at Matins; and then at the evetime song. In between. the praising etc. goes on, presumably.

But why sing io? There are people who sing /ɑɪ.əʊ/ (which led my correspondent to suspect a connection with Io). But the Oxford Book of Carols is insistent (to the extent of a footnote) that the pronunciation is "ee-oh"  (they don't trust readers with IPA symbols, but they must mean /i:.əʊ/).

Some years ago this question was raised in this forum,  As usual, comments should be weighed in the balance and some will be found wanting;  but they are fairly brief and not very numerous. There are many, often conflicting views:  
  1. "i-o" is a corruption of the Latin "in excelsis Deo"
  2. I-o is a contraction or corruption of "ideo," Latin for "therefore." The implied thought is "ideo... gloria in excelsis deo,".
  3. "io" is a Latin interjection (usually an exclamation of joy)
I imagine the truth is a mixture of the last two. (The first sounds to me like the distinctive blend of fanatically Christian sanctimoniousness and inventive improbability so familiar to survivors of a God-fearing education.) But monks in a scriptorium fought off RSI by abbreviating anything they could; and the pre-existing Latin interjection gave them an off-the-shelf solution.

So "io io io – hoorah" for the New Year.

  • Spooner‘s review of The Navy Lark: "acts without thinking". (6, 4, 3, 3)
  • And not herons either – je ne regrette rien (2. 7)
Update 2018. – Typo fix (peary => pearly) and fixed link.

Update 2018. –  Added PS


Update 2019. –  Added inline footnote

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