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Need some help from my fellow geeks! - "You didn't hear about the polar bear?"
March 12th, 2005
10:52 pm

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Need some help from my fellow geeks!
Okay, so I'm reading "Post Captain" (part of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series), and Jack Aubrey's hosted a great dinner where everybody's singing. They sing "Green Grow the Rushes, O!" with the lines:

"Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
All clothed in green-o,
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be-o!"

So Stephen asks one of the other guests what the song is about, and the guest starts to tell him what it symbolizes, when he's cut off by the party starting up again. Patrick O'Brian never does anything at random, so I got the impression that it was one of those "lucky" interruptions where, if the guest HAD explained it, it could have been embarassing for himself, Stephen, or one of the guests.

Now the guest is Canning, a Jewish merchant sailor that Jack admires, and the only explanations I've found on the internet have been Christian explanations, so maybe that's why O'Brian thought it was meaningful to cut off there (i.e., the irony of Canning, a Jew, explaining the Christian symbolism to Stephen, a Catholic). Me? I was thinking maybe it was a sexual symbolism, and that's why it was a good thing that Canning was cut off when he was.

Any ideas? Anybody familiar with the symbolism of the song?

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From:ex_kisa_haw
Date:March 13th, 2005 04:43 am (UTC)
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You're rereading the series? Wow. I'm still in the middle of book thirteen. I just stopped reading at some point. And now I think I'll need to start from the beginning if I want to read them again. Which I probably will, but not until I move.
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 13th, 2005 05:12 am (UTC)
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Yes... I sent the first two to Gilly, who promptly sent them back with comments in the margins (mostly slash, of course - *G*) - so I ended up starting over. *L*! God, but they're good... *sigh*

It IS interesting reading them now that I understood the lingo better, and now what's in store for the various characters. Damn, but that man could write!
From:ex_kisa_haw
Date:March 13th, 2005 05:17 am (UTC)
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Hm. Well, I've only got half that, but still. I would like to get back into them some time, then I could also finish James's creation fic.
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 13th, 2005 03:49 pm (UTC)
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Ah, Pullings... *G* Gilly was much into the Pullings love! *G* Kept getting excited at any hint of an OT3 with Jack and Stephen. Hell - kept getting excited at any hint of slashiness at ALL! *L!!!
From:anima_mecanique
Date:March 13th, 2005 05:00 am (UTC)
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Am wracking the old bean, but the only thing I can come up with is the fact that Auden has a line "And the Lily-White Boy is a roarer"...it's in a stanza with a bunch of nursery rhyme characters doing bad things, and a 'roarer' is a brawler or street thug...I just assumed that the Lily-White Boy was some kind of "good boy" in a nursery rhyme somewhere.

That was unhelpful.
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 13th, 2005 05:14 am (UTC)
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Huh! Well, the bits and pieces I picked up on the internet suggested that the slang "lily-white" came from this song.
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From:aeb
Date:March 14th, 2005 04:38 am (UTC)
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Hello, {Smile, waves}

I happened by, and I can't resist this song. I grew up with it, so I've wondered about it a lot. {GRIN, chuckle}

The symbolism seems to be a mix of Old Testament, New Testament, and non-Christian. (Personally I suspect the non-Christian is a mix of pre-Christian and secular, but I can't confirm this.) Which is which is largely debated, as is what each stands for. There are a few that are pretty obvious, balanced by some that are complete mysteries, and some in between. {SMILE}

The obvious ones aren't any you mentioned. They're:

"12 for the 12 Apostles" -- New Testament.
"10 for the 10 commandments" -- Old Testament.
"7 for the 7 stars in the sky" -- non-Christian; the Pleiades, though how they get 7 stars there I never figured out.
"4 for the Gospel makers" -- New Testament.

And I'd add as nearly certain:


"11 for the 11 who went to Heaven" -- New Testament; sung in order the last time, it really sounds like they mean the 12 apostles minus Judas. {smile}

Beyond that is questionable, debatable, and completely unknown territory. Since I need a stopping place soon, I think I'll stop here for now. I don't know how much speculation you really want to get into anyway. {SMILE}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 14th, 2005 01:10 pm (UTC)
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Thanks!

I'd read some of what you'd said in the bits and pieces I found on-line... but all of them seem to say that the "lily-white boys" dressed in green are a bit of a mystery, and I still wonder what Patrick O'Brian was after.... *G*

Some say the lily-white boys are Jesus and John the Baptist, BTW, continuing the Christian interpretation of the song.
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From:aeb
Date:March 15th, 2005 07:05 am (UTC)
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I'd read some of what you'd said in the bits and pieces I found on-line... but all of them seem to say that the "lily-white boys" dressed in green are a bit of a mystery, and I still wonder what Patrick O'Brian was after.... *G*


Other than avoiding having to say which of three rivals they were talking about? {Chuckle, BIG GRIN}The only person I've found who seemed certain insisted it was the holy trinity, and I have yet to figure out how they figured those could be rivals! {Chuckle, BIG GRIN}

Myself, I figure they're more likely to be Adam and Eve's three sons, at least if you want something biblical {SMILE} My father prefers either three aspiring to the English crown at the same time, or the time there were two popes and another who'd like to be. {Chuckle, BIG SMILE}

Some say the lily-white boys are Jesus and John the Baptist, BTW, continuing the Christian interpretation of the song.


I'd never heard that one before. {pause} Since when did they dress in green? {GRIN} Sorry, but I love to poke holes in things. {BIG SMILE}

Actually, as big a mystery as any is the loner. Most seem to gloss over it as self explanatory... but I really don't think it is. {BIG SMILE}

Of course, everything we haven't mentioned yet is more-or-less mysterious, too:

9 bright shiners
8 April rainers (sp?*) -- okay, so April showers bring May flowers... why 8?
6 proud walkers
5 symbols at your door

*= It just occurred to me that with a folksong you really can't be certain they didn't mean reigners or something else instead. {Chuckle, SMILE}

{GRIN} This one is fun. {Chuckle, SMILE}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 15th, 2005 01:27 pm (UTC)
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*G* It is!

And an interesting bit about the "rivals" (which I still need to look up) is a bit where one person says that rivals originally meant "partners" - ergo, the holy trinity.
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From:aeb
Date:March 16th, 2005 06:16 am (UTC)
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Actually, according to both our Webster's Unabridged and the Dictionary of Word Origins, it originally meant neighbors whose property bordered the same stream or river. I suspect that relationship was rivalrous in the modern sense primarily when the drought was bad enough. Of course, in some areas that's most of the time.... {chuckle, SMILE}

I suppose it could have meant "partners" along the way. We'd really need the Oxford English Dictionary to trace all the intermediate changes, and that's one reference I don't have access to in-house. {pause} I can try to check it the next time I'm at a library, that is if you don't find something first. {SMILE, chuckle}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 16th, 2005 12:30 pm (UTC)
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Do it! *G*
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From:aeb
Date:March 19th, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC)
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I haven't forgotten. It's just taking a while to get to a library. I don't expect it to happen before Monday, and might not until Thursday. But I will get a library eventually, and I will look up "rival in the OED when I do. {chuckle, SMILE}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:aeb
Date:March 22nd, 2005 06:40 am (UTC)

GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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I did go to the library today, and xeroxed the page on "rival" from the appropriate volume. The earliest English quotation involving people (instead of river banks and ports) spells it "riuals":

"1577 tr. Bullinger's Dec. (1592) 106 To mingle poison priuily..Or else in armour openly to worke his riuals death."

{pause} I don't think they got along well. {Amused Smile} After that it goes thru Shakespeare and several more modern writers. The only entry under the noun form that could be interpreted as not competitive is the most recent entry:

"1899 MISS HARRIDAN Fowler 128, I believe the medical name for a rival is 'colleague'."

That quotation may have confused a few people. However, I believe it was meant to be facetious. {BIG SMILE}

So, getting back to the song, it looks like the three rivals were too competitive to get along well. {Chuckle, BIG SMILE} That really doesn't sound like the holy trinity to me. {REALLY BIG GRIN}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 22nd, 2005 02:09 pm (UTC)

Re: GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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*L*! At least, not what we've been told about the Holy Trinity - eep! *G* Thanks!
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From:aeb
Date:March 23rd, 2005 09:07 am (UTC)

Re: GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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{LAUGH} Exactly! It just doesn't fit previous reports on their relationship. {REALLY BIG GRIN} And you're most welcome: this is fun! {REALLY BIG GRIN, HUMONGOUS GRIN}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

P.S. I hope you get your email mess straightened out soon, and without too much more hassle. {cross fingers, SMILE}

A.E.B.
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From:aeb
Date:March 22nd, 2005 06:52 am (UTC)

P.S. to GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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Dad pointed out that the language is modern enough, it can't be much older than Shakespeare, and it's probably newer. If the rivals are political instead of biblical, that gives us some time-frame to guessing who they were. {BIG SMILE}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:rosamundeb
Date:March 22nd, 2005 02:09 pm (UTC)

Re: P.S. to GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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Actually, though... some trace the original song back to Biblical days - Jewish origin!
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From:aeb
Date:March 23rd, 2005 09:25 am (UTC)

Re: P.S. to GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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That would be neat. {GRIN}

However, I don't know about that.... It doesn't feel like the words have been forced to fit the music. It probably would if it had been translated from Hebrew. It's too far from English. In Hebrew, for example, the psalms are poetry. In English they don't feel like poetry because of the problems of translation. A family friend told us about this when he was trying to translate something for a song. He asked what one three or four syllable word meant. "Oh, that means 'the tents of our forefathers that...'" The explanation went on for a couple of lines. It did not fit at all. {chuckle, SMILE} This wasn't an isolated case, either. {Smile}

On the other hand, I do think it feels older than the 17th or 18th century origins my father favors. (He likes that time because apparently it was first written down then. I don't know... but I think it was a around a long time before it was written down. Nobody really knows what nearly half the song is about. The nine bright shiners, the six proud walkers, the five symbols at your door, the three rivals, and the two lilly-white boys are all pretty mysterious. It must have been around a fair while before it was written down... otherwise, I'd think somebody would know what a few more of these things were! {chuckle, SMILE, BIG GRIN}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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From:aeb
Date:March 24th, 2005 09:49 am (UTC)

Re: P.S. to GOT IT! {REALLY BIG GRIN}

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Since I've been continuing to think since last night, I might as well answer again. If it is Jewish origin, we need an alternate 12 (Apostles), 11(who went to heaven), and 4(Gospel makers). We might need more other things, too. The Pliedies are from Greek myth, and I think one speculation for the lilly-white boys suggested they played a role in (non-biblical) rites of spring. {SMILE} I'm kind of intrigued by that idea, though the idea you mentioned - that they're Jesus and John the Baptist - is interesting too. {BIG SMILE, REALLY BIG GRIN}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin
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