I arranged for the usual coffee bunch to meet at Starbucks this time. I did this solely for the enjoyment of provoking Margot with their latest seasonal campaign slogan. I succeeded.
“‘Let’s merry’? ‘Let’s merry’?!” She was frothing more than a cappuccino would.
“You’re not merrying,” I said. “It’s Christmas. Or advent, anyway. You should merry!”
“I’m not the merrying kind,” she said with some asperity.
“Don’t I know it,” said Daryl sotto voce. Margot was momentarily nonplussed and decided to blush.
“It is rather odd,” Jess said, blowing on her eggnog latte.
“I would have thought you would be defending it,” Margot said, regaining her voice. “Your precious verbing and all that. And no doubt there’s some historical usage of merry as a verb.”
“The latter is confirmed,” Daryl said, scrolling through the OED on his iPad. “Both transitive and intransitive. I merry you, you merry me, let’s merry.”
“Enough,” Margot said in a barely audible whisper, her skin colour increasingly Christmassy – red with shades of green.
Daryl continued, waving his hand at his iPad with an almost studied casualness. “Interestingly, merry has a lot of cognates in Indo-European languages, and most of them have something to do with brevity. Indeed, even Latin brevis is a related word: there’s a predictable transformation between /b/ and /m/ and between /w/ and /g/. It seem that pleasantry and mirth – that’s another related word, mirth – it seems they make the time pass more quickly.”
“Ironically,” Jess said, “getting short with people has rather the opposite effect.”
“But that’s all adjectival originally,” I said. “And it’s not really in current use as a verb.”
“The OED has intransitive use into the 20th century,” Daryl said. “Latest citation is from James Joyce. It’s figurative, mostly. ‘Warm sunshine merrying over the sea.’ The transitive use is cited up to 1961… Oh, but with up: ‘merry up their hearts’; ‘people merrying-up themselves’…”
“Oh, well that’s a bit different,” I said. “You can use quite a lot of words with up to make causative transitive verbs. ‘She prettied up her face and uglied up her attitude,’ for example. It’s a sort of modular formation. And for the intransitive, as a figurative usage, it’s less surprising. Again, ‘A warm sunset oranging on the horizon’ would not be such an odd figure.”
Margot seemed genuinely surprised. “So you really don’t like it,” she said to me.
“Didn’t say that,” I said. “I’m just accounting for its seeming odd. We don’t verb adjectives of state as much as we do adjectives of activity and nouns, I don’t think. Anyway, you’re going to have to get used to it.”
“It sounds like Chinglish,” Margot said. “Or Japlish. Like some packaging or some cheap Xbox game.”
“Starbucks say ‘All your base are belong to us,’” I said.
“But why not be merry or make merry?” Margot protested.
“Or even get merry,” Daryl mused apart as though to no one in particular. “‘We got merried on Christmas.’” He sipped his caramel brûlé latte and looked at not Margot.
“Would you really go with be merry?” I asked Margot, whose lower lip seemed to be shaking slightly. “Don’t you tell your English tutoring students to avoid forms of to be when they can? There’s a certain prejudice against them. Admittedly, many texts can be greatly improved by moving away from be- and noun-centred constructions and into action verbs. But sometimes it leads to rather forced results.”
“Make merry is nice and active,” Jess said.
“It’s still two words,” I said. “There’s an idea that one-word verbs are better than compound predicates. Some people absolutely hate adverbs. Most verbs could of course be paraphrased as another verb plus an adverb, and there’s no reason in principle that a given verb-adverb combination couldn’t be expressed as a one-word verb if one existed. It just happens that many of them don’t have single words. And a single word is punchier. It occurs to me that make plus adjective, intransitive, tends to show up in phrases referring to intercourse: make love, make whoopee, makin’ bacon…“
“Merry, meanwhile, gets around quite a bit,” Daryl said, again with the iPad. “Merry and bright, merry-faced, merry-hearted, merry-lipped, merry-mouthed, merry-voiced, merry Monday, merry night, merry Christmas. The more the merrier. Two are merrier than one. ’Tis the season to merry, it seems. So let’s! Time’s a-wasting.”
“Then why make it pass more quickly,” Margot said quietly, eyes downward. She stood, pulled her coat around her. “A happy Christmas to you,” she said, looking at me and then at Jess. She glanced quickly at Daryl, then turned and hurried towards the door.
“Have a happy,” I said. She broke her stride for half a moment, her hands tensing perceptibly, but then passed through the door. I looked back to see Daryl stuffing his iPad in his bag and getting up.
“Gentlemen,” he said, nodding at me and Jess. He made towards the door.
Jess raised one eyebrow, and then lifted her cup in a toast towards him. “God rest you married,” she said, slightly indistinctly, as he exited.
“Yow know,” I said, relaxing back in my chair, “that conversation couldn’t have happened quite that way if we had British accents.”
“Where merry and marry are not homophones. Indeed.” She looked into her cup and saw residue encircling it. “Oh look. Starbucks has even given me a ring. I guess they really do want to merry.”